Lisa Jackson, Wendy Corsi Staub, Beverly Barton
Most Likely To Die
Part One. KRISTEN by Lisa Jackson
St. Valentine’s Day Dance 1986
St. Elizabeth’s High School
What the hell does she want from me?
Jake Marcott hated to think what her plans might be. Standing in the near-freezing night air, he braced himself for whatever demands she was certain to make.
He didn’t know whether he loved her or hated her.
He lit a cigarette with shaky fingers, a residual effect from the car accident that had left his best friend dead and nearly taken his own life.
God, he missed that crazy son of a bitch. Things would have turned out so differently if Ian hadn’t been thrown through the windshield. If his goddamned neck hadn’t been broken. Shit! The crash and spray of glass, the screech of tires, the groan of metal twisting and splitting still echoed through Jake’s brain. Ian’s face, freckled from too much sun, floated into Jake’s mind for just a second before Jake pushed it quickly away. Too many times he’d wondered what would have happened if the tables had been turned, if Ian were still alive and he had been the one to die.
It messed him up to think about it.
Everything seemed washed out and pale now…the joy bled from it.
He drew hard on his cigarette and thought about the tranquilizers in his pocket: the prescription that Doc Flanders just kept refilling, barely asking any questions, somehow knowing how deep Jake’s pain was, that the little white tablets were a nearly useless balm for the ache splitting his soul.
Get over it, Marcott, he told himself and was pissed that he was here in his damned tuxedo, missing the dance and waiting for her. When would he ever learn?
Clearing his throat, he looked around at this, the eeriest part of St. Elizabeth’s campus.
Why this lame, clandestine meeting?
Because she’s a psycho. You know it. You’ve always known it.
Jake took a drag from his cigarette and let smoke stream from his nostrils in the cold night air. He shoved a hand through his hair and glared up at the night-dark heavens. A few stars were visible, not that he cared. He was sick of dealing with the fallout from the accident, his woman problems, and the whole damned world. Eighteen fucking years old and he sometimes felt that his life was a waste.
So where was she?
He glanced around and wondered if she’d show.
Tired of waiting, he tossed what was left of his Marlboro into the darkness, watching the red ember arc, then sizzle and die on the frosty grass. He glanced up at the full moon hanging low in the sky and heard the thrum of a bass guitar throb through the hills. Edgy, his nerves strung tight as the piano wires inside his grandmother’s old upright, he paced back and forth in front of the oak tree just as he’d been told. Hidden deep in the maze of hedges, the leafless oak seemed to shiver in the wind, brittle branches reaching upward like skeletal arms scraping the sky.
From deep in the maze he was invisible to anyone. Even a crafty old nun peering out of her third-story window in the hundred-year-old brick building guarding the acres of this campus couldn’t see him here.
The place gave him a bad case of the creeps. Throughout the rounded corners and dead ends of the lush labyrinth, benches, fountains, and statues had been placed. Beneath the oak a sculpture of the Madonna stared down beneficently. Arms upraised, she stood silent, white as bleached bones, and surrounded by topiary cut into the shapes of dark creatures that, tonight, seemed sculpted by the devil.
Oh, for Christ’s sake, it’s just plants, Marcott. Nothin’ more.
Angrier by the minute, he glanced at the digital readout of his watch.
She was late. Nearly ten minutes late. So he’d give her another five and then he was gone…a ghost.
Besides, he had more important things to do than to waste time on her.
He whipped around, toward the sound of a twig breaking.
He saw no one.
“Hey, I’m here,” he said in his normal voice.
Nothing…no response, just the faraway thrum of music and laughter and the soft whisper of the wind.
A stealthy footstep.
The hairs on his nape lifted.
Surely it was she.
“’Bout time you showed up,” he said to the inky darkness, his heart pounding a little.
“I was about to give up on you.”
Again, she didn’t say a word.
Christ, what was the problem with her?
Always playing these damn head games.
At that thought, he smiled…maybe that’s what she wanted. For him to chase her down. Find her in this maze of clipped shrubbery.
He heard the sound of a footstep again. Closer now. And something else…breathing.
Oh, she was close…
“I know you’re there,” he whispered.
He couldn’t help the smile that threatened his lips.
Still, she didn’t respond.
All the better.
“Have it your way,” he said. “I’ll find you.”
His eyes narrowed in the night and he noticed a dark shape move a bit…away from the twisted shadows of the topiary only to fade away again.
So this is what she wanted.
A thrill of anticipation sang through his brain. His blood heated.
Jake Marcott could never back away from a challenge.
Where the hell is Jake?
He’d been gone for over ten minutes, and Kristen had the first worrisome sensation that she’d been ditched. At the high-school dance. By her new boyfriend. On the two-month anniversary of when they’d started dating. It was like the lyrics of some bad 1950s song.
Don’t panic, he said he’d be right back. Just find him, she told herself.
Jake was easy to spot. At six-four, he stood half a head taller than most of the boys and a foot above a lot of the girls, so why couldn’t she spot him? “Where are you, Jake?” she muttered to herself. Tall and lean, with wide shoulders, thick brown hair, and an almost shy smile that had caused many a girl’s heart to beat triple time, Jake Marcott was definitely a hunk.
Kristen scanned the packed gym, her gaze skating over the knots of students clustered in the corners and crannies of the old gym. A few couples were dancing beneath a canopy of twinkling lights strung from the ancient rafters. Music thrummed, drowning out most conversation, and a fog machine, supplied by the DJ, gave the old building a creepy, intimate ambience. It was late, nearly eleven, and most of the guys had ditched their ties and jackets, but the girls were still dressed in gowns of silk, satin, lace, and chiffon, some sophisticated and sleek, some outrageously frilly, but all far more interesting than the stupid uniforms they wore daily to this, the last all-girls Catholic school in Portland.
Next year St. Lizzy’s, the final bastion of separation and education by sex, would, like its brother and sister schools, fall to the sword of coed classes, a nonuniform dress code, and more lay teachers than nuns. Kristen’s senior class was, thankfully, the last of its traditional, and in Kristen’s estimation, archaic kind. There was even talk of updating the social curriculum enough that the St. Valentine’s Day dance wouldn’t be held in the creaky old gym where it had been for nearly seventy years, but could conceivably be hosted someplace way cooler, like the Portland Art Museum or on one of the old stern-wheelers that churned their way up and down the Willamette River, or one of the turn-of-the-century hotel ballrooms around Portland-anywhere but in this dingy, old gymnasium.
“Hey! Kris!” a female voice yelled over the din, just as a song ended.
Kristen turned to spy Mandy Kim, her jet-black hair coiled high onto her head, hurrying through the throng. Petite and athletic, she was weaving her way toward her through the knots of couples. Inwardly Kristen groaned. Mandy was one of those friends who were quick to point out any flaw in others. An A student who was captain of the soccer team, president of the Honor Society, and had already been accepted by Stanford, Mandy could be a real pain. Tonight she was dressed in a sleek black gown that exposed enough of her back to give Sister Mary Michael conniptions. “Where’s Jake?”
If only I knew. “Outside, I think,” she said, noticing that Mandy’s date, a tall, handsome Asian kid with a stare so unblinking Kristen was certain he was wearing contacts, stood right behind Mandy, looking over her head, one hand cupped over her shoulder as if he were navigating her.
“Oh.” Mandy turned her head to look up at her date. “You know Boyd.”
Boyd mumbled a greeting, but his attention seemed keyed on the spot where the tips of his fingers scraped the smooth skin of Mandy’s nape. His last name was Song and he was forever getting teased about his name…Boyd Song, or Bird Song, Birdie, and finally Big Bird.
“Maybe Jake’s with Nick or Dean,” Mandy went on, mentioning Jake’s two best friends who also attended Western Catholic, an all-boys school and the counterpart to St. Elizabeth’s. “You know, I saw them all talking a while ago, near the back doors.” She leaned closer, as if to whisper the darkest of secrets. “Hey, did you see who Bella brought?” Mandy’s dark eyes deepened. “Wyatt Goddard! Remember? He’s been kicked out of about a million schools, including St. Ignatius and Western. Goes to Washington now and Boyd says he’s been suspended twice this year. Twice.” She said it in disbelief, and yet there was the tiniest trace of admiration in her voice for something that frightened but fascinated her. Boyd nodded. “I’m surprised he was allowed into the dance,” Mandy went on conspiratorially. “What’s Bella thinking?”
Who cares? Kristen thought, but kept her opinion to herself, her eyes searching the crowd for any sign of Jake while Mandy rambled on and on about the couples on the dance floor.
Kristen just needed to find Jake.
Boyd kept rubbing Mandy’s shoulder, gently kneading her skin. Obviously he was hoping to turn her on as, no doubt, he was getting off on the simple touch. Mandy didn’t act as if she noticed. “So Jake just took off? I wonder if he was looking for Lindsay…I saw them talking a while ago, out in the hallway,” she said, motioning to the gym’s wide double doors that were surrounded by red and white helium-filled balloons and had been forced open.
“I think he wanted to smoke. Outside.”
Mandy’s eyebrows lifted and there was a bit of a gleam to her gaze, the barest of a disbelieving smile touching her glossed lips. “Sure.”
Boyd kept on rubbing, his eyes even more glazed. Geez, he was really into it. Kristen didn’t dare let her eyes drop for fear she might see evidence of his enjoyment pressing hard against his rented tuxedo pants.
The disc jockey spun “What’s Love Got to Do With It” by Tina Turner, and Mandy, grabbing Boyd’s hand and breaking his trance, headed for the dance floor.
Kristen was gratefully alone again.
And still no sign of Jake.
Well, crap. Jake had been gone the better part of half an hour and Kristen wasn’t the type of girl to stand in a corner and wait. She tried to fight the paranoia that he’d taken off on her, that he’d either hooked up with his ex-girlfriend Lindsay or that he’d ditched her for a chance to get high with his friends.
Forcing a smile she didn’t feel, she eased her way through the tangle of students, recognizing familiar faces, seeing a few new ones but unable in the semidark room to discern who went to St. Elizabeth’s, Western Catholic, or Washington. Nor did she care.
She walked past a chaperone in a pink suit and stepped into the cold night through an exterior door.
Lindsay Farrell, her dark hair twisted atop her head, her face seeming wan in the bluish illumination from a security lamp mounted high overhead, nearly ran into Kristen. “Oh, sorry,” she whispered and then, recognizing her friend, stopped short. Lindsay’s ice blue dress was sleeveless, her arms bare, and she crossed them over her chest, warding off the chill of winter. “It’s freezing out here,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “Let’s go inside.”
“I’m looking for Jake.”
“Oh.” Lindsay’s mouth puckered into a little frown and the air was suddenly charged with unspoken recriminations. Kristen suspected that Lindsay still loved Jake; the reason for their breakup was still a deep secret.
“Have you seen him?”
“Me? No. I mean, not for a while…” Lindsay’s voice trailed off and she edged toward the open doors.
“Yeah, with you.”
“Where’s Dean?” Kristen asked, the bad feeling that had started in her gut growing deeper.
“Dean and Nick went to check out Chad Belmont’s new car.” Lindsay shivered and cast a glance up at the moon, which was shining like an icy disc in the sky. “Kind of a weird night, huh?”
Really weird, Kristen thought. No one in her small circle of friends seemed to be with her date. Isn’t that what the Valentine’s Day dance was all about? Being together? Being in love? Or was she kidding herself? Was she just a stupid, hopeless romantic? Why would one night be any different than any other?
Or was it a night when Jake was having second thoughts? Thoughts about hooking up with his old girlfriend, the one he really did love?
But Lindsay was here, without Jake, wan and tense, acting as if she couldn’t wait to disappear. Kristen tried to shake off her worries. Even though Jake and Lindsay had been broken up before Christmas, Kristen still felt a little strange dating him. Her relationship with Lindsay had definitely suffered because of it. “Look, Linds, if this is uncomfortable for you-”
“I mean, me being with Jake.”
Lindsay scanned the area. “Are you? With him?” she asked, then shook her head impatiently as Kristen’s face reddened. “Look, I don’t have time for this.” She hurried away, silk skirts rustling, heading inside.
Fighting back a burning guilt, Kristen turned toward the parking lot. She was pretty sure she loved Jake, and that made it okay. And Jake hadn’t left her. He was here, somewhere, probably with Dean and Nick checking out Chad’s new car. Or he could be drinking stolen beers with them…or…Her gaze skated to the maze behind the cloister, those imposing, thick, impenetrable hedgerows planted in an intricate pattern.
She felt something. A warning. A tiny shift in the atmosphere that caused her scalp to prickle.
Suddenly she was sure something horrible was about to happen.
Lindsay barely made it to the bathroom. She flew past two girls adding layers of gloss to their lips, stepped into the stall, and ralphed up all of the contents of her stomach into the toilet.
“Oooh…yuck…” one of the girls said and they both hurried out, muttering about people who shouldn’t drink.
As the bathroom door banged shut behind them, sweat broke out on Lindsay’s forehead. Her mouth tasted foul, but once she’d retched, she felt immediate relief. Just as all the pamphlets had told her she would.
How she wished her sickness were the result of alcohol!
Oh, Lord, how am I ever going to get through this? she wondered desperately.
One day at a time.
She placed a hand over her flat abdomen and thought about the child growing inside her. All because of one night. One stupid night. How had she been so foolish? What had she been thinking? She, an A student who knew all about the facts of life. Then one night, because she was feeling down, she’d tossed away all of her values and dreams for one evening of passion.
She closed her eyes and drew in a shaky breath. Breathing deeply, she made her way out of the stall. Stumbling to the sink, she splashed cold water over her face. Too bad about her make-up, too bad about college, too bad about the rest of her life. You’re going to be a mother. Alone in the bathroom, she leaned her head against the cool tiles covering the wall.
So how was she going to tell her parents? Her mother would be heartbroken, her father bitterly disappointed that his only daughter had gotten herself “knocked up.” How could she explain it to anyone? She barely understood it herself.
Slowly, she released a tense breath.
She couldn’t cower in the restroom all night. She had to go out and face the truth. No more time for pretend. This was real. She looked at her reflection. Dark hair coiled onto her head, sleek blue dress showing off her figure, and an antique diamond necklace her grandmother had bequeathed her-the princess, heiress to the Farrell Timber fortune.
Wouldn’t Nana be proud?
Well, there was more to her than Barbie Doll looks.
It was time to face the damned music.
She had to talk to Jake.
Squaring her shoulders, uncaring that some of her hair had fallen free of the plastered curls, mindless of the fact that her face was nearly devoid of any residual make-up, she hurried outside and into the night.
She’d lied to Kristen a few moments before.
She knew exactly where Jake was.
It was time for a showdown.
Eric Connolly was a boob. An idiot. A cretin! No two ways about it, and Rachel was stuck with him, at least for the remainder of the night. She watched as he, thinking he was so funny, poured a little gin into a cup of punch before taking it over to Sister Clarice…oh, Jesus.
Save me, Rachel thought, heading in the opposite direction. She needed some air, some space, and the appearance of not being with Eric when Sister Clarice took a sip, recognized the taste and smell, then grabbed Eric by the back of his scrawny neck and called his folks…as well as hers.
Rachel inwardly groaned and glanced at the doors leading to the back parking lot. She’d seen Jake Marcott walk through them not ten minutes ago and he hadn’t returned. His date, Kristen, was standing on the edge of the crowd, alternately checking the doors and scanning the dance floor as if she were looking for him, as if he’d ditched her. But Lindsay Farrell had gone outside along with a few other kids. Rachel had seen Jake’s sister Bella and Wyatt Goddard slide outside. Nick and Dean, Jake’s friends, had exited earlier, and now dateless Aurora Zephyr had wandered outside behind DeLynn Vaughn and Laura Triant.
It was almost as if the party was moving outside.
She bit her lip and thought of Jake. What was he doing? Her heart ached a bit and she reminded herself she was here with Eric the Clown.
Sure, Eric was cute.
But he was just so over the top. So stuck on himself.
She glanced around again and noticed Haylie Swanson bearing down on her.
Oh, God, not now.
Haylie was still in major bereavement mode: black dress; black hair ribbons; black armband; sad, sad eyes. Ever since Ian had died, she’d worn her grief like a noble mantle. But, Rachel knew, hidden in the folds of Haylie’s sorrow was a slow, burning, and intense anger, a hatred for the boy who had escaped injury while Ian had given up his life.
Rachel wanted to avoid Haylie, but there was no hope for it.
“I thought I saw you over here,” Haylie said, not cracking a smile, her lips painted a dark purple, as if she were some kind of wannabe Goth.
“You with Eric?” Haylie wrinkled her nose a bit.
“Why did you invite him? He’s sooo immature.”
Rachel lifted a shoulder. Didn’t want to be part of this conversation even though Haylie was only echoing her own thoughts.
“You would have been better off to come alone. Since that bastard already has a date.”
“That bastard?” Rachel repeated.
Haylie’s gaze skewered her. “I know you’re in love with Jake,” she said, little white lines of fury creasing around a mouth the color of bing cherries. “God, Rach, you wear your heart on your sleeve. Everyone knows.”
Rachel cringed. How could anyone know, much less every- one? Hadn’t she hidden her feelings for him? She thought of Lindsay and Kristen, her two best friends who had both already dated and professed their love for Jake. Did they know? Oh, God, this was terrible. Mortified, she felt herself blush a deep, incriminating red.
One of Haylie’s eyebrows raised a fraction. She was satisfied by Rachel’s reaction…so she’d been guessing about Jake. Haylie didn’t know anything. Nor did anyone else. Haylie had just made a wild stab and had come up with a bull’s-eye!
Leaning closer, a slight gleam in those night-dark pupils, Haylie said, “It’s just such a waste, Rachel, because he’s a loser. A murderer. He killed I an, y’know.”
Oh, Rachel knew. The whole county knew. Haylie made it her mission to make certain that every living soul in the greater Portland area was aware that Jake Marcott had literally gotten away with murder.
“Not now, Haylie,” Rachel said.
“Then when? When is he going to pay?”
“The police don’t think there was foul play.”
“The police are idiots! They’ve covered it up.” Haylie was nodding now, agreeing with herself. Thankfully the music was loud enough that no one else heard.
“Why would they bother?”
“Because they just don’t give a damn.”
At that moment Eric returned, smelling of marijuana. Haylie cast Rachel a withering glance as she sniffed loudly, whether to indicate she’d smelled the sweet scent of the wicked weed or because she was into her near-tears act again, Rachel didn’t know.
Rachel felt bad about Ian. Everyone did. Especially Jake. But Ian was gone and there was no bringing him back. No amount of accusations, railing at the gods, praying to Jesus, or crying and wringing of hands could return Ian to this earth. There had been memorials, services, and dozens upon dozens of flowers and candles left at the corner where the accident had taken place. Rachel and her classmates had cried buckets of tears, said hourly rosaries, and prayed for Ian and his family. It was sad. Tragic. Horrible. But in Rachel’s estimation, there was no conspiracy. It was just an awful accident that would hopefully help everyone learn not to drink and drive.
Ian had been behind the wheel. Like Jake, he’d not been wearing a seat belt. His blood alcohol level had been in the stratosphere and there had been traces of prescription drugs in his blood as well. He’d taken a corner much too fast and paid the ultimate price. Both boys had been thrown from the car; Jake had ended up in intensive care with broken ribs, a fractured shoulder, concussion, and ruptured spleen. But he’d survived. To live with the guilt of knowing somehow he’d been spared.
Everyone mourned Ian Powers, but Haylie’s grief had turned to bitter anger. She claimed that Jake, not Ian, had been behind the wheel of Ian’s car.
Haylie checked her watch, sent Rachel a final knowing glance, then turned and headed toward the back of the gym.
“Head case,” Eric observed as the song ended and he spied Sister Clarice bearing down on him. “Crap!” His gaze darted around the gym. “Look, Rach, I’ll be right back. I’ve, uh, got to go to the john,” he said and half jogged through the crowd, trying to lose himself as the nun, like a patient lion stalking prey, slowly but surely followed after him.
Rachel wanted to melt into the floor. Since that was impossible, she turned and headed outside as another song, Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” trailed after her into the cold winter night.
She should just call it a night. Make some lame excuse to Eric and find a ride home. Instead, she kept walking, searching the area for Jake.
Geez, how dumb is that? Ditch your date and go looking for a boy who doesn’t see you as a girl, only as a “friend” he can use?
A few kids were scattered in the shadows, hidden from the eyes of the chaperones inside. Some were smoking, others drinking, others making out. But nowhere did she see Jake.
Don’t try to find him, Rachel, that’s a huge mistake. Huge.
She ignored the warnings running through her mind and let her gaze skate away from the few kids hiding for whatever reasons.
Keeping to the shadows, she walked around the corner of the cloister to the gardens, where a hundred-year-old maze of laurel, photinïa, and arborvitae crowded the dark sky and hid the moon.
It was a place to hide.
A place to avoid the people she didn’t want to see.
A place to figure out how to find her pride.
Coward, she thought, but wasn’t about to risk her shot at a scholarship and graduating with honors because of that dweeb Eric. God, why had she been so foolish, so damned desperate for a date, to invite him? She’d known enough about Eric to realize he relished his role of class clown at Washington High and yet, determined to go with a date, she’d invited the oaf to the dance. Now she was embarrassed as hell. It would have been better to come single. For the love of God, she should have known better. She was a levelheaded girl, the daughter of a cop, for God’s sake, and if not a straight-A student, then consistently on the honor roll.
But in her own way, she was as much of a moron as Eric.
Because of Jake.
Though no one knew it. She fingered the locket at her throat, the one she always wore, the one no one had ever guessed held not only tiny pictures of her mother and father, now divorced, but of Jake as well…hidden behind the little heart cutout of her father.
And Jake, she knew, didn’t even know she was alive.
How long had she been in love with him? Three years? Four? Since eighth grade at St. Madeline’s?
She’d dreamed of him and told no one about her secret fantasies, not even her best friends, Kristen and Lindsay. Because she couldn’t. Lindsay had dated Jake for two years and once they’d broken up, he’d turned to Kristen, never once looking at Rachel, his friend, the girl who tutored him when he was failing. The girl who befriended his younger sister, Bella. The girl who took care of his dog when he went hunting. Good old reliable Rachel, who had covered for him when he’d been in the accident over Christmas vacation that had ended Ian Powers’s life.
She hadn’t really lied to anyone. Not really. She just hadn’t admitted to seeing Jake earlier that night.
You’re a fool, Rachel, she told herself as she marched toward the maze, a great place to hide, a spot where neither Eric Connolly nor anyone else who mattered would find her.
Kicking off her high heels, she sighed. She’d never had much use for killer shoes, and she didn’t care that the hem of her dress was dragging along the grass. Too bad. Her mother would be furious, of course; though the dress was a hand-me-down, it was still good and could be used again.
What she wouldn’t give for her sweats and running shoes. She would be so out of here!
And go where, Rach?
She heard her mother’s tired voice as if the woman were walking right next to her instead of pulling a double shift at a local diner.
You can’t run from your problems.
Rachel turned into the maze, past a statue of the Madonna with her arms stretched and palms turned upward, as if to cradle the next poor soul to pass.
Rachel kept right on walking.
She had to think ahead. Of her future. One definitely without Jake. She had big plans. And nothing, not even her feelings for Jake, was going to stop her.
Kristen headed toward the center of St. Elizabeth’s campus, the garden area where a deep, frigid labyrinth of trimmed laurel hedges, pruned trees, benches, and statues separated the school grounds from the convent and chapel where the nuns lived and prayed. Fog was beginning to rise, causing the light from the moon to reflect oddly, as if the silvery orb were fuzzy with some otherworldly halo.
The temperature dropped.
The wind picked up.
Kristen’s skin crawled as she passed the weird gargoyles of the topiary and the walls of foliage. Her premonition about something bad about to happen hadn’t left her. She turned a corner and darkness suddenly consumed her as she met a dead end. Far in the distance, the music stopped, the background noise of drums and guitars fading into silence.
Where was she going?
Why was she exploring this maze tonight?
She heard a footstep behind her.
She wasn’t alone.
Her heart trip-hammered.
Something sizzled through the night.
And then a gasp, a strangled cry, like a wounded animal, a gurgling, primal groan.
She jumped backward.
What the hell was that?
Her blood turned to ice. She started running along the grassy pathways, guided by the eerie light of the moon. Her high heels fell off, but she raced barefoot, barreling down blind alleys, bouncing off prickly bushes. Don’t panic! Don’t panic! Don’t panic!
But she was already frantic, leaves and branches tearing at her arms, her hair falling around her face, her heart pounding out a terrified cadence.
Where was the sound coming from?
She careened around another sharp corner, stubbed her toe on the end of a bench, and yelped as she hurtled through the maze. It was too dark to see the lights from the school-the hedge was too high to peer over-but she kept running. In circles? Toward the center of the labyrinth? Or out of the damned maze?
Blood was oozing from her toe, through the ripped nylon of her panty hose.
Run! Run! Run! Get help!
She tore around a sharp corner just as a scream of pure terror ripped through the shivering shrubbery.
Her heart froze.
“Oh, God,” she whispered, her stomach wrenching.
In the weird moon glow she spied Jake Marcott, his body pinned to the trunk of the gnarled oak at the very center of the maze. His face was white, his eyes wide. A crimson stain covered the ruffled shirt of his tux, a thick arrow at its center. Blood dripped from the corners of Jake’s mouth and his head hung forward at an impossible angle, his dead eyes wide and staring.
Kristen took a step forward. This was a joke…a sick, awful, twisted joke. Jake couldn’t be…he wasn’t…“Oh, no…oh, no…”
Lindsay Farrell, her hands covered in blood, her dress splattered and stained, was crumpled at Jake’s feet. Her hair had fallen out of its pins, the long, dark coils curling at her bare shoulders. She lifted her head, her eyes filled with tears that streaked her face with black mascara.
“Why?” she cried as the sounds of shouts and frantic, thundering feet echoed through Kristen’s brain.
Help is coming. Maybe it isn’t too late. Maybe Jake can be saved! Maybe he isn’t dead yet!
She started to run to him, but Lindsay, her face twisted in fury, forced herself clumsily to her feet and barred her path.
“Why, Kristen?” Lindsay demanded again, her voice a razor-sharp whisper, her face twisted in fury and pain. “Why did you kill him?”
Portland, Oregon, March 2006
“So, I’m stuck, is that what you’re saying?” Kristen balanced her cell phone between her ear and shoulder as she leaned back in her desk chair and felt a headache coming on. Though time was definitely running out, she’d held out hope that her friend Aurora had found someone else to be in charge of the damned twenty-year reunion. “No one’s willing to take over the job?”
“You were the valedictorian. If you didn’t want to head up the reunion, you should have gotten at least one B, okay? Like in PE or calculus or something.” Aurora Zephyr laughed at her own joke and Kristen imagined her toothy smile and knowing hazel eyes. Aurora was the one student at St. Elizabeth’s that she’d really kept up with over the years.
“If I’d known this was coming up, I would have.”
“Fat chance. Now give up the whole glass-is-half-empty thing. It’s going to be fun.”
“What’s got into you? There was a time when you knew how to have a good time. Remember?”
“Good time…” Kristen murmured skeptically.
“You’re just going to organize a big party for kids you knew way back when. Get into it, would ya?”
Kristen sighed and leaned toward her desk. “It’s just that I’ve tried to avoid anything to do with St. Elizabeth’s.”
“I know. Because of Jake. We all feel that way. But it’s been twenty years, for God’s sake. Time to get over it. Bury the past and lighten up.”
“I can try.”
“Hallelujah and amen, sister,” Aurora said and Kristen smiled.
“I’ve already rounded up quite a few volunteers,” Aurora added. “Remember Haylie Swanson?”
That psycho who believed that Jake killed Ian Powers? She wasn’t likely to forget. “She’ll be there?”
“Yep. And Mandy Kim. Her last name is Stulz now.”
Mandy Kim. Another girl Kristen hadn’t trusted in high school.
“We’ve got a few others who will show up. I just told everyone to spread the word. The more people involved, the better. I even called Lindsay Farrell and Rachel Alsace, but they both live too far away to help out.”
“I know.” Kristen still received annual newsy Christmas cards from the women who were supposed to have been her best friends.
“Lindsay’s some hotshot event planner in New York and Rachel’s…geez, wait a minute…I know this…”
“She’s in Alabama. A cop.”
“That’s right,” Aurora agreed slowly. “Like her old man. He was with the Portland Police Department for years.”
Kristen felt the muscles in the back of her neck tense. Mac Alsace had been one of the detectives who had worked on the Jake Marcott murder. Despite his and the Portland Police Department’s best efforts, the “Cupid Killer” case had ultimately gone cold. Kristen had heard that Detective Alsace’s inability to solve the murder of his kid’s friend had driven him to an early retirement.
Jake Marcott’s ghost haunted them all.
Kristen hadn’t seen either Lindsay or Rachel since graduation. She remembered them in their caps and gowns, all surface smiles and unexplained tears. The day had been warm for June; Kristen had sweated as she waited to give her valedictorian speech and later, accepted her diploma from Sister Neva, the Reverend Mother. After the ceremony, she’d found Lindsay and Rachel. They’d hugged, posed for pictures, and sworn to keep in touch, but they hadn’t. Not in that first summer before college, not afterward.
Because of Jake.
So many things had changed, because of Jake.
Kristen leaned forward in her chair to watch the aquarium screen saver on her computer monitor where an angelfish was being chased through lengths of sea grass by a darting neon tetra. “Aurora, you should be running this reunion, not me.”
“No way. You’re not weaseling out of it! I figured I could jump-start it for you, but the reunion is your baby.”
“Fine,” Kristen capitulated. “Why not? Believe it or not, I’ve done some work. I’ve got a couple of places who will cater, if we really elect to have it at St. Elizabeth’s.”
“It’s perfect. We were the last all-girls class to graduate and now the school is closing. It would be weird to hold it anywhere else. I did a quick poll of the first few classmates I contacted and the general consensus is to hold the reunion at the school.”
“If you say so.”
“Good. I’m sending you an e-mail with an attachment. It’s everything I’ve done to date. From there on in, you’re in charge. See you in a couple of hours.”
“You got it.”
Kristen hung up, popped a couple of aspirin for the impending headache, then buried herself in her work, effectively putting anything to do with St. Elizabeth’s out of her head as she polished a human interest story about a man and dog who had spent a year walking from Missouri to Oregon via the Oregon Trail. Once she’d e-mailed the story to her editor, she glanced up from her cubicle. The Elvis clock mounted on the temporary wall over her desk swivelled its hips. As the clock kept time, the King’s hands moved around the old-fashioned dial. Right now, Elvis was pointing out that it was nearly six and Kristen, as usual, was running late. She checked her e-mail, found the note from Aurora, and printed out an Excel file which contained more information than she’d ever want on her classmates.
Slinging her purse strap over her shoulder, Kristen stood up and stretched. She’d been allotted this cubicle while one of the newspaper’s more roomy offices was being remodeled. She’d been with the Portland Clarion for fifteen years, long enough to actually warrant an office-a dubious honor given that it felt as if the “higher-ups” scarcely noticed her.
“I’m outta here.” Kristen closed her laptop, placing it and her Excel printout inside her computer briefcase.
“Big date tonight?” Sabrina Lacey asked, two cubicles over, as she tossed back the remainder of her double espresso, then crumpled the paper cup in her long fingers and discarded the remains into her wastebasket.
“Yeah, right.” Kristen scrounged in her purse for her keys and, once the huge ring was found, headed for the door. Sabrina joined her as she wended her way through the labyrinthine desks, tables, and chairs of the Clarion’s newsroom. It had been her first job out of college, the one she thought she’d use as a stepping stone to bigger and brighter newspapers. Though her position had changed over the years-stretching, evolving, mutating-it said something she wasn’t sure she wanted to examine that she was still here.
“You should go out,” Sabrina, all big brown eyes, cornrows, and metal jewelry, insisted. “Find a guy. Have some fun.”
“I’m married, remember?”
“You’re separated, have been for a year, and last I heard, you were going to divorce Ross’s ass.” Sabrina arched a perfect eyebrow.
“I know, I know. It’s just hard.”
“Nuh-uh. I’ve done it three times.”
“Maybe it’ll get easier after the first one.”
“You’ll never know unless you try.” Sabrina stopped at the hallway leading to the restrooms.
“I’ve got a kid,” Kristen reminded her.
“Who’s nearly grown.”
Kristen snorted. “Sixteen does not an adult make.”’
“You tell her that?”
“Every day. Besides, I do happen to have a date tonight, only it’s with half a dozen women I haven’t seen in twenty years. I got drafted into heading the damned high-school reunion.”
“Drafted,” Kristen stressed. “I didn’t volunteer.”
Sabrina wrinkled her long nose. “Can’t you go AWOL?”
“I’m hoping to pawn the duties off on someone more deserving tonight.”
“Good luck.” Sabrina laughed and moseyed down the hall.
Kristen shoved open the glass doors of the newspaper offices and a blast of frigid air, smelling of the river and exhaust, rolled toward her. Dark clouds gathered over the spires of Portland’s highest buildings, and as she hurried the two blocks to the parking lot where her beat-up Honda was waiting, the sky opened up. Flipping up the hood of her jacket, Kristen made a mad dash to her Honda. The car looked as tired as she felt, and the fun was just beginning.
Kristen shook her head in disbelief. For her, high school had ended that night at the Valentine’s Day dance. The remainder of the school year had been a blur that hadn’t become clearer with time. But, apparently, one of the perks of being valedictorian of the class was that she got to organize the class reunion.
She’d managed to duck this responsibility for nearly twenty years, but no more. Aurora was making certain that this anniversary of the graduating class of ’86 would be celebrated.
The only good news was the hope that she could pass the baton for the next reunion. If there was one…
Sliding behind the wheel, she rummaged in her purse for her cell phone. Starting the Honda with one hand, she speed dialed her home number with the other. On the second ring, as she turned on the wipers, her answering machine clicked on. “Lissa?” she said as soon as the recorded message beeped at her. “If you’re there, answer, okay?” A pause. Nothing. “Lissa, are you home?” But there was no breathless response; no sound of her daughter’s voice. Obviously she wasn’t home. “Listen, if you get this, call me back. I should be home in twenty minutes.” She clicked off, punched in the number of her daughter’s cell phone, and heard, “Hi, this is Lissa. You know what to do. Leave your number and, if you’re lucky, I’ll call you back.”
Kristen hung up. Her daughter was undoubtedly screening her calls. Caller ID could be such a pain. “Great,” she muttered under her breath as she nosed her car out of the lot and settled into the slow flow of traffic that oozed out of the downtown area. She was ticked that her daughter wasn’t home. Didn’t that kid know what “You’re grounded” meant? Hopefully, Lissa would show up before Kristen had to leave again, in what? Less than an hour? “Save me,” she whispered, thinking of the evening to come and the first of what would probably be a dozen meetings of the reunion committee.
Never reaching a speed even close to twenty miles an hour, Kristen edged west onto Canyon Drive, which sliced through the steep, forested cliffs of the West Hills. Her route cut under the Vista Avenue Viaduct, more commonly referred to as the Suicide Bridge, and each time she passed under that arching eighty-year-old stone span, she thought of those who had leapt to their deaths on the very pavement on which she was driving. Shuddering, she watched the fat drops of rain drizzling down her windshield as she reached the turnoff leading to her house. She punched the accelerator and her little car climbed up the hill, along an impossibly winding side road that snaked through the stand of Douglas fir trees to the crest and the tiny dead-end lane that stopped at her house, a cedar-and-glass “Northwest Contemporary” that had been built in the 1970s and boasted a panoramic view of the city far below.
Tonight she would have loved to throw on her most comfortable sweats, light the fire, and curl up by the windows with a good book. The last thing she wanted was to leave home again to deal with some of her ex-classmates. She could do without their exuberance to connect with friends, enemies, and unknowns after twenty years of virtual silence. Nothing sounded worse.
As she reached her house, she suddenly realized how wrong she’d been: the reunion meeting was not at the top of her “things I don’t want to do” list. That first, dreaded spot was reserved for dealing with her soon-to-be ex-husband. And it looked like she was about to have the pleasure of another face-off with him as well. Ross’s monster of a black pickup was blocking the drive.
“Give me strength,” she silently prayed as she parked her car across the street.
The day was quickly sliding from bad to real bad.
“Perfect,” she muttered under her breath. She sent up another quick plea for patience in dealing with the man she’d married during her sophomore year in college. It had been a rash, hasty decision, one she’d come to regret. If not for their only child, the now “out of cell range” Melissa, the entire marriage could be considered a colossal mistake.
She just hadn’t had the guts, heart, time, or energy to end it.
Neither, it seemed, had he.
No divorce papers had been filed.
“More fun to come,” she whispered under her breath as she grabbed the mail from the box. With her orange tabby nearly tripping her, Kristen made her way through the open door of the garage, past the lawnmower, ladders, and recycling tubs to the door leading to her kitchen, where, big as life, Ross was seated at the nook café table, sipping one of her light beers and reading the paper.
Just as he’d done thousands of times during their years together.
Wearing a white shirt with the top two buttons undone, his sleeves rolled up, his tie tossed casually over the back of a chair, he scanned the business section. His wallet and keys were on the table.
“Been here a while?” she asked as he looked up, his gray eyes, as always, assessing.
Her heart did a funny little glitch. Even after all the years, the fights, the differing paths of their lives, she still found him sexy. Her downfall.
“I thought I’d take Lissa to dinner. She hasn’t shown.”
“Just like that?”
She was stunned. “Did you consider calling?”
“Yep.” He took a swallow of his beer and leaned back in his chair to stare at her. “Thought better of it.”
He lifted a shoulder. “I figured you might try to talk me out of it. Or, if I got your okay, then I’d have to go through the whole thing all over again. This seemed easier.”
“So you just let yourself in?”
“Still own half of the house. Got my own set of keys.” Those damned eyes skewered her, challenging her to argue with him. Kristen decided not to rise to the bait. She didn’t have the time or energy to argue.
“Where is she?”
“I thought you’d know.” He stretched, his shoulders and arms tugging at the seams of his shirt, the black hair at his nape a little too long and ruffling over his shirt collar.
Uneasiness crawled through Kristen’s blood. “Lissa was supposed to come home straight after school.”
“You told her that?”
“Oh, yes.” The ugly scene this morning was fresh in her mind. They’d argued, the gist of it being that Lissa was furious with her mother for finding the progress reports from the school. Even though the envelope had been addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Ross Delmonico, Lissa had considered the contents about her failing grades to be no one’s business but her own. She’d thrown a fit and refused breakfast. Her eyes, so like her father’s, had snapped gray fire and she’d half run out of the house to catch a ride with her boyfriend. “I grounded her because of the progress reports from her school,” Kristen explained.
Ross waited, eyebrows raised, for Kristen to continue.
“She’s flunking chemistry and German.” Kristen picked up the progress reports from the dining room table and handed them to him.
“Flunking?” he said, eyeing the page with the teacher comments.
“She claims it’s all a big mistake, that the teachers haven’t entered a couple of grades, so I told her to get everything fixed and have Mrs. Hanson and Mr. Childers call me, send me notes, or e-mail me. So far, I haven’t heard from either teacher, so I figure until the grades are up, she’s going nowhere.”
“Isn’t that a little Dickensian?”
“You got a better idea?” She didn’t need a lesson in parenting from a man who for years was a ghost in the marriage, spending all of his waking hours working. When Ross didn’t reply, she said, “I didn’t think so.”
“She still going to school with Zeke?” Kristen nodded, and Ross said maddeningly, “Doesn’t sound much like grounding to me.”
“I was running late and-” Kristen stopped short, clenching her teeth. She glared at him. “Why am I explaining this to you? It’s not like you were around to drive her.”
“Your decision, not mine,” he reminded her in that irritating way of his. That much was true. She’d asked him to move out and he’d complied. Now he shifted on the chair to face her and she noticed the square cut of his jaw, still as strong as it had been when she’d met him nearly twenty years ago.
“Okay, let’s not go there. The blame game doesn’t really work.”
Damn the man. Was that a twinkle in his gray eyes? Was he finding some humor in this impossible situation?
Ross stretched out of the chair, pushing it back so hard it screeched against the tile. Shoving his hair from his eyes, he stood and she was reminded again that Ross Delmonico was one heart-stopping hunk of a man. It was no wonder she’d fallen head over heels for him all those years ago. She’d been vulnerable, hurting, even bristly after the end of her senior year of high school. She’d moved to Seattle by the end of June, gotten hired at a clothing store, and with the help of student loans and scholarships had started classes at the University of Washington in the fall.
Ross Delmonico, a graduate student, had been her TA in chemistry for the spring term. He’d taken the time to tutor her personally, and as the term had progressed the study sessions had segued into a series of casual dates. They’d explored the city, drinking coffee on the waterfront, shopping at Pike Street Market, poking through old book and antique shops in Pioneer Square, getting caught in the rain at the locks. They’d taken a ferry across the sound at sunset and watched the sun settle behind the jagged Olympic Mountains as they’d slowly fallen in love. Somehow she’d passed chemistry before switching her major to journalism. How ironic that their daughter was failing the same subject that had brought them together.
In her mind’s eye, Kristen caught a glimpse of Ross as a younger man. His hair had been longer, his clothes leaning toward denim shirts over faded T-shirts, beat-up jeans, and two days’ worth of beard darkening that strong jaw. He’d been soft-spoken, thoughtful, and when he smiled, showing off one dimple and strong white teeth that flashed devilishly against his tanned skin, she’d felt her breath catch in the back of her throat. God, she’d fallen hard for him.
He’d filled out a bit in the years since, and the untamed curls at the back of his neck had been clipped into a shorter, cleaner cut. Crow’s-feet fanned from the edges of his deep-set eyes, and if she looked hard enough she could see the first hint of gray daring to show in his thick hair. He looked almost citified in his slacks and white shirt, but in the depth of his eyes and the hint of his smile, there lurked the sexy, intelligent man she’d married.
“What?” he asked, drawing her out of her reverie, his expression faintly amused. Almost as if he knew where her thoughts had gone.
Through a partially open window she heard the sound of a car’s engine, and within seconds the nose of a battered red Dodge came into view.
Ross’s gaze centered on the window. “Looks like the prodigal daughter hath returned.”
“Good. Let me handle this.”
“No way…my turn, remember?”
Kristen really wanted to square off with Lissa. After all, she was the one who had set the rules and the punishment, but maybe it was time for Lissa’s father to step up. “Okay, Super Dad, you’re on.”
They watched as Lissa leaned across the seat and kissed Zeke with enough open-mouthed fervor to make Kristen’s gut clench. Though rain was falling steadily, the drops weren’t enough of a curtain to shield the passion in the kiss.
“She’s giving him tongue, right here? In front of us in the middle of the day?” Ross sounded incredulous.
“Welcome to my world.”
Lissa slid from the SUV’s interior and headed toward the house. “If they kiss like that out in the open, what do they do when they’re alone?”
“We’ve had ‘the talk.’”
“‘The talk’? You mean about sex?”
“Yes, about sex. You know kids today don’t think oral sex is any big deal.”
“I think it’s a very big deal.” He looked shaken.
Where had he been for the past decade? Kristen wondered. Had he been hiding his head in the sand and believing the parents’ age-old foolish notion of “My daughter would never?” If so, it was about time he woke up.
“You’re kidding, right?” he asked, but his serious tone indicated he recognized the truth when it was served up to him on a platter.
“Wish I were.”
“Has anyone had ‘the talk’ with Zeke?”
“I didn’t take that one on.”
“Maybe I will.”
“You know, scare the shit out of the punk.”
“And risk losing your daughter’s respect?”
He snorted. “That’s already shot to shreds anyway. A little tête-à-tête with Zeke sounds imminent.”
Kristen agreed, but said, “You won’t gain any points.”
Exactly. “Then maybe you want to reinforce my position that oral sex at sixteen is not okay.”
Lissa’s steps slowed as she finally spotted her father’s car. She sent a guilty look toward the kitchen before her shoulders straightened, her chin jutted forward in rebellion, and she strode into the house, her attitude reeking of battle.
She dropped her backpack near the hooks by the door to the garage. Water dripped from her coat and she smelled of rainwater and something else-cigarette smoke? Or worse?
Mascara-rimmed eyes glared up at her father. Her near-black hair, cut short and tipped in shades of pink and gold, was curling and damp. “What’re you doing here?”
“Waitin’ for you. My night.”
“Your night?” she said, barely holding in a sneer. “Since when?”
“Since I got back into town and your mom and I worked out a deal.”
Kristen was about to speak up. There was no deal, but she caught a warning glance from Ross and held her tongue.
“A deal?” Lissa repeated skeptically as she walked to the refrigerator and opened the door. “About me?”
“Without my consent?” She snagged a Diet Pepsi. “Shouldn’t I have been consulted?”
“Informed,” he corrected as she closed the fridge with a shoulder. “Which I’m doing right now. Come on, we’re going to dinner, then over to my place.”
“What? Why?” she demanded, clearly blindsided.
“Just to hang.”
“You and me?” She turned big eyes toward her mother as she opened her can of soda. “This is okay with you?”
“It was her idea,” Ross said as he reached for his jacket.
Ross moved toward the door. “Come on, grab your stuff. You must have homework.”
“Wait a minute. I can’t leave. Zeke’s coming back and we’re watching television together tonight.”
“Aren’t you grounded?” he asked.
“I’m not supposed to go anywhere, but he’s coming here,” she explained, as if her thinking were entirely logical. “Besides, the whole grounding thing is lame.”
“Then you have notes from your teachers for me?” Kristen asked. “Because nothing came through on my e-mail.”
“Not exactly. They’re working it out.”
“Great. When they do, then we’ll see.”
“God, Mom, this is just so unfair!”
Kristen nodded. “Probably so. Get used to it. And watch your mouth.”
“I’ll handle this,” Ross said, and Kristen decided to let him go for it. Let him deal firsthand with a stubborn, rebellious teenager.
“Good. I’ll let you two work it out.”
As he shepherded a recalcitrant Lissa out the door, Kristen took the time to lift Marmalade from the ground and pet the cat’s soft fur as she walked to the bedroom. She was rewarded with some deep purrs and a wet nose pressed to the inside of her neck. “Yeah, you’re a love,” Kristen said before the orange tabby started struggling and Kristen dropped her onto the edge of the bed…the king-sized bed she’d shared with Ross.
“Don’t go there,” she warned and wouldn’t even guess what Ross was sleeping on now. Maybe just the recliner he’d been so fond of before he’d moved out. “Not your problem.”
But she couldn’t help smiling when she remembered going bed shopping years earlier and how Ross had flopped onto the expensive mattress, crossed his legs, and patted the pillow top next to him. “Should we try it out first? You know, see if it can stand up to us?” he’d whispered.
Kristen had blushed to the roots of her sun-streaked hair before muttering, “In your dreams, Delmonico.”
“All the time,” he’d agreed and as she’d dropped onto the mattress, she’d imagined making love to him on that downy soft bed.
He’d read her mind and told the clerk, “Sold. When can you deliver?”
“Next Thursday,” the bald salesman had said, checking his delivery chart.
Ross had winked at Kristen. “I guess you’ll just have to wait to have your way with me, wife.”
Now Kristen touched the edge of a pillow and sighed. “A long time ago,” she reminded herself and shut her mind to those dangerous thoughts. There had been a time when Ross had meant everything to her. But that was before he’d started his own construction company and worked increasingly long hours. It had gotten so bad that some nights he wouldn’t come home, staying on the job in other cities, making excuses…or so it had seemed. She’d wondered if he was having an affair, had asked him about it and he’d scoffed at her. But there was something in his eyes that had belied his quick denial.
She’d never caught him in a lie.
Never picked up a call from another woman.
Never found a receipt he couldn’t explain.
The worst-case scenario was he was a liar and a cheat.
The best case, disinterested in his family.
And what about you? What about his charges that you’d never really gotten over Jake Marcott? Just how much truth is there that his ghost still haunts you, as Ross charged?
She closed her eyes. How much of the failure of their marriage was her fault?
Did it matter?
In the past few years, Ross had slowly slipped away from her.
Or did you push him?
The headache she’d been fighting flared again, burning behind her eyes. The bottom line was that Ross had nearly disappeared from her life.
But he was here today, wasn’t he? And he’s with Lissa tonight.
“Too little, too late.” She wouldn’t forget that deep down Ross lived and breathed for Delmonico Construction. His wife and young daughter had become less and less important until Kristen had felt virtually invisible.
In the past two years, nothing she said or did seemed to sink into the man.
So it was a good thing he was dealing with Lissa. A very good thing.
She walked into the bathroom and stopped short when the closed blinds rattled slightly.
How odd, Kristen thought. The window was never open. Never. And yet…She pulled the blinds up and sure enough, there was a space between the sill and the bottom pane. Just wide enough to stick fingers beneath and push open. Water had collected on the window track, indicating that the window had been open for some time.
She frowned at the opening, pushed the window shut, and tried to latch it, but the damned lock, which had always been loose, didn’t click shut.
So who had opened it?
But she never used this bathroom.
Nah…he was never here.
But he still has keys.
Why would he come into the bathroom…her bathroom?
It used to be his, too.
Oh, hell, she couldn’t think about this now. She snapped the window shut, forced the latch closed, and decided to ask Ross and Lissa about it later.
She only took the time to brush her teeth, pile her hair onto her head in an untidy knot, and strip out of her work clothes in favor of jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and battered running shoes. A dash of lip gloss, then she grabbed her laptop, portable printer, purse, and keys and was out the door.
As she drove to the committee meeting, she grimaced. Her job had lost its luster, she was soon to divorce her husband, her only child acted as if she hated her, and to top things off, it was a rainy night and she was headed to about the last place she wanted to go.
Could her life be any more pathetic?
So it’s finally going to happen.
Twenty long years had passed, twenty years of questions, twenty years of heartbreak, twenty years of fear.
Jake Marcott’s killer smiled inwardly. She had waited a long time for this, been patient, knowing that eventually the Fates would work with, rather than against, her and she’d get her chance to finally settle the score.
After Jake’s death there had been a time of fear and panic. She’d vowed to herself that she had done all that was necessary, but of course, she’d been wrong. She knew about the reunion meeting and itched to be there, a mouse in the corner, listening and planning, knowing that at last it was time to strike again, to right the very old and bitter wrongs.
Get ready, she thought, tucking her hair into a hat and glancing at the overcast skies. She thought back to that night, to seeing Jake’s eyes find her in the moonlight. His teeth had been a slash of amused white, his cocky expression changing as she’d lifted the already-armed crossbow, leveled the heavy weapon at his chest, and let the arrow fly.
Jake Marcott had taken one in the heart.
Right where he deserved it.
She smiled at that memory. Not once in the past twenty years had she regretted Jake’s demise.
Better yet, she’d gotten away with it. She’d left the damning weapon at the scene of the crime, but the stolen crossbow could never be connected to anyone at the dance that night.
No one knew.
She smiled as she looked into the mirror.
Jake Marcott’s murder had never been solved.
And the class of 1986 had never been the same.
There had been no five-year reunion, or ten. No one had said a word when fifteen years had passed, but now, on the eve of the closure of St. Elizabeth’s, the class of ’86 was going to meet one more time.
For some, it would be the last.
Ricardo’s Restaurant was a bad trip down memory lane. Located only half a mile from St. Elizabeth’s campus, the little eatery was a place where all Kristen’s friends had hung out. Though twenty years had passed and the once-red plastic booths had been re-covered in a green faux leather, not much else had changed. The walls were still covered with pictures of softball, basketball, and Little League teams Ricardo’s had sponsored over the years, and the aromas of baking bread, tangy marinara sauce, and garlic still emanated from a kitchen hidden behind the main counter.
She saw the cluster of tables pushed together in one corner near the fireplace. Several women were already seated, and Kris felt a tightening in her gut as she recognized Haylie Swanson and Mandy Kim. Mandy’s dark hair was shorter and her face had rounded, but Haylie looked as if she hadn’t aged or changed one bit since high school. A trim black woman sat near Aurora, probably DeLynn Vaughn, and the other two women…Geez, they looked familiar, but who…oh, God, the heavyset one was Martina Perez and the other woman looked a lot like April Wright, whose mouse-brown hair had become sun streaked, her glasses long gone, her crooked teeth now capped and white.
Strewn over the tabletops were yearbooks, binders, a legal pad, yellowed copies of the school newspaper, class lists and the like. The women were talking, laughing and sipping either beer, wine, or Diet Coke.
Aurora looked up as Kristen wended her way to the tables. “Kris!” Aurora smiled widely and waved her over. “About time.”
“Sorry I’m late. Issues at home.”
“Tell me about it,” DeLynn Vaughn said, rolling her large brown eyes. “I’ve got seven-year-old twins…One might have to be held back, while his sister will be moved on to second grade. I get it, I really do. I’m a teacher, for God’s sake! But that doesn’t make it any easier. Oh, I don’t want to think about it right now.” She flashed a friendly smile. “How have you been, Kris? You’re a big-time reporter for the Clarion, right?”
“Editor,” Aurora corrected.
Kristen shook her head and slid into the empty chair between DeLynn and Aurora. “Associate editor. Not so big-time. You work there long enough, they figure they have to give you a title of some kind.”
“Sure, that’s how it works. They pass out promotions with no thought to talent,” DeLynn said dryly and Kristen smiled despite herself, only to glance up and find Haylie, sober as a judge, staring at her.
Great, Kristen thought. Some things never change. “Hi, Haylie,” she greeted her, deciding to break the ice. “Geez, I haven’t seen you since graduation.”
“You find that odd?” Haylie asked, fingering the stem of an untouched wineglass.
“I guess we’re all just too busy,” Martina said with a shrug. “Jobs, husbands or boyfriends, kids-”
“Yeah, that’s it,” Haylie muttered with a trace of bitterness.
“So…” Kristen dragged out her laptop and switched it on. “Let’s get to it. Thankfully, Aurora’s done a lot of the preliminary work, but I couldn’t bribe her into taking on the job.”
Several of the women chuckled. But not Haylie.
“You earned it,” Aurora said.
“Don’t remind me. Now, let’s see what we’ve got.”
What they had was plenty. Aurora and Martina had already started searching the Internet, using Web sites like Classmates.com to collect as many e-mail and regular mail addresses as they could, all of which were merged into a database. Mandy had elected to put together a booklet of bios of the classmates and DeLynn had contacted the current principal of the school to come up with possible dates for the reunion. They had agreed to make Friday night of the reunion weekend “classmates only” and decided to use Ricardo’s as the venue. Husbands and significant others would be invited to a dinner/dance on Saturday night at the school.
So much like the Valentine’s Day dance twenty years ago, Kristen thought, but held back any objections as everyone else seemed excited about the idea.
“You know, I don’t know why we haven’t had a reunion before,” Mandy chirped.
“Yeah, we should have done this after ten years…or maybe even five,” April agreed.
“That’s such a load of crap.” Haylie’s voice was a dash of cold water. The skin on her cheekbones tightened as she slid her gaze over all the women. “And we all know why.”
Everyone grew silent; even the piped-in music and ambient surrounding conversations seemed to fade.
“It’s because of Jake Marcott,” Haylie stated. “I told myself that if I came to this, I was going to say exactly what I thought, and I figured that we’d all pretend that what happened to Jake and to Ian was all forgotten. Well, it’s not.”
Kristen said, “I don’t think this is the time to discuss Jake.”
“Yeah, of course not. It never is. Why don’t we pretend it didn’t happen? We’ll all be as fake as we were the last year of high school.”
“Haylie, not now,” Kristen said, uncomfortable in her newfound role as the leader of this group.
“Then when, Kris? When?” she asked. “Ian and Jake have been dead twenty years! Longer than they were alive! Don’t you think we should at least acknowledge them?”
“At the reunion?”
“Here! Now!” She was visibly shaking, her wine slopping over the rim of her glass.
“It is later!”
“Oh, no!” April glanced up as another woman headed their way. Kristen’s heart dropped as she recognized Bella Marcott, Jake’s sister.
“Cool it, Haylie,” Aurora said, but Haylie, already incensed and fueled by a couple of glasses of Merlot, turned angry eyes on Bella.
“Something wrong?” Bella asked, then made a sound of acknowledgment. “You were talking about Jake, right?” Before anyone could answer, she skewered Haylie with a look. “And you’re upset because you still believe he killed your boyfriend.”
“His name was Ian. He wasn’t just my boyfriend. He was someone’s brother and someone’s son. And he was a person. Ian Powers.” Red-faced, tears sheening in her eyes, Haylie stood abruptly, knocking over her wine in the process. The crimson liquid ran like blood. She barely noticed as April and Martina started mopping up the oozing stain with their napkins. “He would have been thirty-nine right now, like some of us. But he never had the chance to go to college or hold a job or get married or have kids, and the damned shame of it is no one but his family remembers him.”
One napkin soaked, another still wicking up the wine, April said, “We get it, Haylie, okay? We’re all sorry about Ian.”
“No one really is.” She sniffed loudly and backed away from the table, colliding with a chair. “I knew this was a mistake,” she said. “I should never have come.”
“Oh, Haylie, come on.” Aurora, always the peacemaker, reached for Haylie’s arm. “Let it go.”
“I’ll never ‘let it go.’” Haylie snagged her purse from the floor and took off through the surrounding tables, half running toward the door.
“Should someone go after her?” Bella asked, turning to watch Haylie disappear into the night.
“I will.” Kristen was already on her feet. “She shouldn’t be driving.”
“What a drama queen,” April muttered under her breath. “She’s fine. Barely touched her wine.”
“I’m sorry, Bella,” Aurora said, motioning Jake’s sister into the chair recently vacated by Haylie. “I’m sure she didn’t mean anything she said.”
Bella arched an eyebrow, and in that instant she looked so much like her dead brother that Kristen’s blood chilled. “I think you’re wrong,” Bella said, looking through the large window toward the parking lot. “I think she meant every word of it.”
Kristen left her laptop and purse at the table and headed outside. She felt the eyes of other patrons following her and silently kicked herself for getting involved in the damned reunion. One meeting and it was as if she’d tumbled back in time. Here she was chasing Haylie Swanson, who, just like in high school, was always upset. She caught up with Haylie in the parking lot. Haylie had unlocked the door to her car and was about to slide behind the wheel.
“Haylie,” Kristen called and Haylie hesitated, turning toward Kristen. “Hey, don’t go off all upset. I’m sorry about Ian, really. It was a horrible accident, but it’s been twenty years.”
“So we should just bury it? Forget it?” She was fumbling in her purse, juggling her keys and a pack of cigarettes. Her hands were shaking and there was an edginess to her. She was almost frantic as she shook out a filter tip.
“Look, no one meant Ian any offense.”
“Wasn’t Jake your date that night?” She lit up, fingers trembling.
“It was a horrible night for all of us.”
“See what I mean? Everyone focuses on the dance and Jake’s murder. No one gives a damn about Ian.” She opened the car door and slid inside. “Good luck, Kristen,” she said as she jabbed her keys into the ignition. “I have a feeling you’re going to need it.” Cigarette clamped between her lips, she twisted her wrist, the engine firing as she slammed shut the door.
Ramming the sports car into reverse, Haylie floored it. She shot backward, her rear tires hitting a curb. As Kristen watched, she hit the accelerator again, barely slowing as she bounced into the street, almost clipping the fender of a passing white Cadillac. The driver of the Caddy swerved and laid on the horn as Haylie sped away.
Kristen sighed, then walked back inside. Her classmates were still seated, all staring out the window. “I think she’s losing it,” Kristen said.
Bella rolled her eyes. “It’s all for show.”
“I don’t know.”
April shook her head. “I used to work with her brother. Years ago when I was clerking for a law firm downtown. Even then Haylie was having problems, seeing a shrink. On and off antidepressants and anxiety drugs.”
“Sounds like ninety percent of the adults in America,” Martina said as she motioned to the waitress for another drink. “Let’s not worry about her now, okay?” She glanced around the table. “We can’t let Haylie derail us. Not when we’re on a roll. We’ve got work to do, wine to drink, and pizza to order.” The waitress approached, a tall, skinny woman with graying hair and deep-set eyes, and Martina flashed her a smile. “Do you still serve that Mexican pizza with the jalapeños? I used to love those things.”
The next hour was spent ordering and eating any and all foods Italian, organizing committee heads, and catching up. Pictures of husbands, kids, and boyfriends were passed around, and Aurora admitted that her oldest daughter had just married and was talking of starting a family. Aurora had married right out of high school, had her first child at nineteen, and her daughter had followed in her mother’s footsteps right down the bridal path. Aurora didn’t know whether to be elated or horrified. “Don’t get me wrong. I love babies, but me, a grandma? I’m waaay too young.” She was teased mercilessly, and the general mood at the table turned upbeat.
“What about you, Kris?” Aurora asked. “No pictures?”
Kristen shook her head. “Not with me.”
“You’ve got what? One daughter.”
“Mmm. And the usual axiom applies, sixteen going on thirty.”
There were murmurs of understanding.
“You’re married to Ross Delmonico, right?” April asked, interest evident in her features, a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Kristen tried to evade the question. Didn’t want to cop to the fact that she was separated. “Mmm.”
April picked up on the lack of commitment in Kristen’s tone. Her eyes sparked in interest. She plucked a breadstick from the basket in the middle of the table and snapped it in two. “So what’s the deal?”
Kristen had always been a terrible liar. Besides, there was just no reason to hide the truth. It would come out sooner or later. “Ross and I are separated.”
April tossed her lustrous hair over one shoulder. “Are you nuts?” She took a bite from the breadstick. “I met Ross a couple of times when I was working for the law firm. He’s what my daughter would call ‘a hottie.’” Leaning back in her chair, her expression said clearly that she thought anyone who would let Ross Delmonico slip through her fingers must be brain-dead. She chewed on the breadstick. “So, are you getting a divorce?”
Kristen thought about the papers she had yet to file. “I don’t really know,” she hedged, surprised at her reaction. Hadn’t she just hours before practically told Samantha, her coworker at the Clarion, the divorce was a done deal?
“Well, listen,” April said, as if she were teasing, “if you get tired of that guy, throw him my way, will ya?” She laughed at the joke, but there was something about her suggestion that made Kristen feel defensive. Oh, God, she wasn’t becoming one of those women who thought of a man as “hers,” the kind who only held on tighter when another female showed interest, was she? She smiled at April and said lightly, “Who knows?”
“When you figure it out, let me know.”
At that moment the waitress returned and the conversation drifted into safer territory. April turned her attention to one of the yearbooks lying open on the table, and after they ordered refills, the business of the reunion was brought to the fore once more.
Martina, who was married to Craig Taylor, a graduate from Western Catholic, suggested that their class invite the boys from Western who had graduated in the same year. “I think we should make this reunion special. It’ll be the last of its kind, as St. Elizabeth’s will be closing. Wouldn’t it be cool to have the boys that we did everything with there?”
“Ya think?” Kristen asked warily. Nostalgia aside, this was a little too eerie. “It seems like-”
“Like we’re trying to duplicate the dance where my brother died,” Bella said, and everyone grew quiet once again. Her smile had faded and she contemplated the contents of her wineglass. A crease lined her forehead as she thought. “You know, maybe it’s what we need. It could be cathartic.”
“Probably not for Haylie,” DeLynn said.
“Nothing will be.” April frowned. “As I said, she needs help. Serious help. But it’s not our problem.”
Bella glanced over at Kristen. “I’ll go along with whatever the group decides. Please don’t worry about me, and if we’re thinking about Jake, then what would he say? I think he’d tell us to ‘go for it’ and ‘have a bitchin’ party.’”
“She’s right,” Mandy agreed, still writing on her legal pad.
April eyed a bottle of Merlot. “Then why not?” She grinned wickedly. “It’ll be fun.”
Everyone, aside from Kristen, seemed to concur.
Martina said, “Good. I’ll call Laura. Remember her, Laura Triant? She married one of Craig’s friends. Chad Belmont. He graduated when we did and was Western’s senior class president, I think. Chad keeps in touch with a lot of the guys who graduated from Western.” Martina was running with her idea, nodding her head, her black hair gleaming in the dim lights.
They chose a weekend in July that the school had already approved, then they split into committees, each volunteering to oversee the different jobs that needed to be tackled. DeLynn took over contacting classmates, April wanted to work with the caterers, Martina was in charge of dealing with the boys from Western, Kristen, along with being the general coordinator and treasurer, would make certain that the announcements were sent, and Aurora would assist her. Bella was in charge of decorations. No one mentioned Haylie again.
Mandy Kim, the self-appointed secretary, took copious notes, filling in page after yellow page of a legal pad with information. She worked with the same intensity and focus that she’d exhibited when she was listening raptly to one of Sister Clarice’s lectures on world history twenty years earlier.
Some things never change, Kristen thought as she made her own observations and memos on her laptop.
The general consensus was to meet in a month, again at Ricardo’s, where they all would report their progress. In the meantime they’d be in touch via phone and e-mail.
An hour later the check had been paid and almost everyone had left. Only Kristen and Aurora remained.
“See,” Aurora said, as she stuffed her yearbook into a purse large enough to hold a small computer, “admit it, Kris, this went better than you imagined.”
“Okay, okay, you’re right. Aside from the Haylie meltdown and a few tense moments with Bella, it was okay.”
“Better than okay. It was successful. We got a lot of stuff accomplished and we even had some fun, right? I’m thinking the reunion is going to be a blast.”
“We’ll see,” Kristen said.
“It’s just too bad that Rachel and Lindsay couldn’t have been here.” When Kristen didn’t respond, Aurora added, “You’re still in contact with them?”
“We do the Christmas card thing.” Kristen gathered her things. Aurora was right. The meeting had gone better than Kristen had expected and it had been good to see some of her fellow classmates and find out what they’d been doing since graduation. “Hopefully they’ll make it to the reunion.”
“So why not just call them? You’ve got their numbers.”
“I will.” Kristen walked outside with Aurora.
As she shoved her purse and laptop into her Honda she felt a lot more optimistic that the reunion wouldn’t be a total disaster. She wasn’t convinced that it would be “a blast,” but it might have its fun moments.
After all, she thought, as she slid behind the wheel and turned on the ignition, what could possibly go wrong?
Jake Marcott’s killer sat in her car, the engine idling. Parked on a darkened side street, she watched the restaurant parking lot unobserved. Tension tightened every muscle in her body and she felt an old, familiar need course through her veins. Her palms sweated and her pulse jumped in anticipation.
Chill out, she silently told herself, then felt her lips twist wryly as the advice, offered so often by Jake Marcott, rang in her ears. “Bastard,” she muttered, gaze locked on the front door of Ricardo’s. He’d deserved to die, and she again felt the thrill of knowing she’d put him in his grave.
It had been so long.
Though she’d replayed the scene in her mind a thousand times over, the exhilaration she’d once felt had long ago begun to fade. But now, with the reunion on the horizon, the memories had intensified again, the thrill of killing him and getting away with it. She’d waited so long…and now, finally, she would get her revenge.
The door to the restaurant swung open and she reached for the gearshift, ready to pull out of the parking spot, when she saw a man hold the door open. A family of four, middle-aged mom and pop with two preteens in tow. The kids were fighting, the girl swatting at her brother, only to have him hit back, making her scream bloody murder.
As they walked to their vehicle, the father said something sharp to his son, then opened the door of a minivan. The pinch-lipped mother, ever the wiser, narrowed knowing eyes on her blond daughter. The girl was playing it up, putting on a beatific, almost angelic smile.
That’s it, girlie, play the part. Just like all the hypocritical bitches from St. Elizabeth’s.
Caught up in the family’s tiny drama, she almost missed the last two alumnae emerge from the restaurant. But she didn’t. And she couldn’t keep a smile from crawling across her face. Aurora and Kristen, the eager and the reluctant organizers, hiking up the collars of their jackets as rain began to fall.
Showtime, she thought, and her blood pounded in her ears. She hazarded a glance at the passenger seat beside her, at the yearbook, extra photos, and scissors. Some of the pictures had been cut from the pages and she’d been careful as she’d extracted them, wanting to slice each color photo to ribbons. Fury heated her blood. White-hot rage, fermented by twenty years of waiting, raced through her veins.
Don’t blow this.
Not when you’re so damned close!
You’ve waited too long to wreck everything now.
She bit hard on her lip. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself with the scissors gripped in her hand. Stalking her prey. Chasing her down. Catching her. Then, as the two-faced bitch recognized her attacker, she would panic, beg for mercy, cry out that she was sorry. Her victim would grovel. Promise to do anything the killer wanted to save her pathetic life. She would pretend remorse, but it would all be just an act.
Then the killer would strike.
Quick and fast and deadly.
She would plunge those razor-sharp blades deep into Kristen’s chest, piercing her heart.
Not just once.
Over and over.
Watching the blood spurt.
Hearing Kristen’s gurgling screams.
Feeling her go limp.
Witnessing the light go out of Kristen Daniels’s eyes forever.
“You damned bitch,” she whispered, then tasted blood where her upper teeth had sunk hard into her lower lip.
So caught up in her fantasy she was shaking, she almost missed Kristen’s Honda pull out of the parking lot and onto the side street.
Slowly, letting a truck pass, the killer put her car into gear, stepped on the gas, and eased the car away from the curb. She zeroed in on Kristen’s vehicle, one back taillight blinking as it turned onto the main road.
Silently, with dark intent, she followed.
“I think you should break up with Zeke.”
“What?” Lissa looked at her father as if he’d just lost what had been left of his obviously feeble mind. They were seated at the bar that separated his small kitchen from the living quarters of his high-rise condominium, the place he’d moved to after Kristen requested him to leave. The eating bar was slab granite, the floor-to-ceiling windows offered a panoramic view of the city, the Willamette River, and snowcapped Mount Hood, and the real estate agent had assured him he would love it.
She’d been wrong.
He hated everything about the place.
The air of sophistication.
The chic pseudo-elegance.
Even the damned view was lost on him.
It seemed a shell, just a place to crash. He’d rented enough furniture that he could sleep and watch television and that was it. He spent as little time here as possible.
“I’m not breaking up with Zeke.”
“I don’t like the way he treats you.”
“Wait a minute. You’re telling me how someone should treat me, when you’re not even around?” Lissa leaned back in her bar stool and ignored the half-eaten hamburger and basket of fries that they’d picked up on the way.
“I was just giving your mother her space.”
“Yeah, right.” Lissa scowled.
So she didn’t buy it. The truth of the matter was that he’d gladly packed his bags, that he’d thought they both could use a cooling-off period. Kristen had been certain he was cheating on her and he’d thrown it in her face that she’d married him on the rebound, that she’d never gotten over Jake Marcott, the kid who had been killed her senior year of high school. In the time that had followed his death, she had not only made Jack a martyr but a saint as well. Ross had done some digging and, as far as he could see, Marcott hadn’t been a candidate for canonization. Whether it had been guilt or love or some other deep, primal emotion, Kristen had never let go of him. Ross had seen it coming, even before they’d married, but he’d been young enough to believe that she would get over the murdered boy and that she would start living. With him. He’d thought he could make her love him because he’d fallen so hard for her: the athletic girl with the red-brown hair, sad hazel eyes, and throaty laugh.
Intellectually Kristen had tried to move on.
But emotionally she’d never let go.
The ghost of Jake Marcott had never quit haunting her. Haunting them. Sometimes, late at night, after they’d made love, he’d catch her staring at the shadows on the ceiling or looking through the diaphanous curtains that moved in the summer breeze.
Maybe now, with the damned reunion, she’d be able to get some closure. He sincerely hoped there was a chance that she could finally be free.
“You can’t tell me what to do, okay?” Lissa said, still trying her best to push his buttons.
“No, it’s not okay.”
“So now you’re going all authoritarian on me?” She sighed loudly, tipped her chin down, and glared at him.
“I’m your father.”
“Big effin’ deal.”
“Hey. Don’t be that guy.”
“The father guy. I’m not one of those kids that you have to…I don’t know, throw a baseball to, or take hiking, or spend”-she made quote marks with her fingers-“‘quality time’ with or even relate to. I’m fine. And I’m fine with Zeke.” She grabbed her soft drink and chewed on the straw. “You don’t even know him.”
“I know he doesn’t have the respect to walk you to the door, that he’s got his hands all over you, and that I haven’t heard you’ve even gone on a real date together.”
“A ‘real date’? You want me to go on a ‘real date’? What? Like where he comes to the door in a suit and tie and smiles at you and Mom and brings me home by ten. That kind of date?”
“Sounds about right,” Ross said equably.
“Dad, that was fifty years ago, and even you and Mom didn’t do anything so stupid. If you haven’t noticed, our family is not exactly Aussie and Harriet.”
“You mean Ozzie.”
“I mean we’re more like the Osbournes than the Neil-sons.”
“Nelsons…Oh, I get it. You’re putting me on.” Beneath her act of boredom, the crazy-colored hair and make-up, was the little girl who had often run to him, her arms in the air, the ribbon in her dark hair always falling out, bandages on her knees. She’d been thrilled to see him and had always announced wildly, “Daddy’s home…Daddy, put me on your shoulders…Daddy!” That girl was still there, just buried in anger, sadness, and too much make-up. “Should I be flattered that you think I’m like Ozzy Osbourne?”
“Why are you doing all this now?” she asked on a huge sigh. “Acting like you care or something.”
“I do care.”
She snorted her disbelief.
“I mean it, Lissa, and I’ve missed you.”
“Save me,” she whispered, arms folding over her chest, chin jutted forward in rebellion.
“Okay, I screwed up. Is that what you want to hear?”
She didn’t reply, and he shoved his uneaten food to one side and turned to look her squarely in the eye. “I think we should get something straight, okay? No one in our family is perfect. We’ve all made mistakes. But I am your father and the adult here. So we’re going to figure out why a smart girl like you lets her grades slide into the toilet and hooks up with a guy who hasn’t shown me that he has an ounce of respect for her or anyone else.”
“You don’t even know him!”
“You’re right. I don’t.” He found his cell phone and slid it across the table. “Call him. I think it’s time we met.”
“You know his number, right? Dial him up, tell him I want to meet him.”
“No time like the present.”
She glanced away. Thinking. “He’s probably busy.”
“Thought you said he was coming over to your house to watch television. Call him.”
“To have him come here?” she asked, pointing at the floor.
“With you?” She was shaking her head. “He won’t do it.”
“It would be too weird. With you. You already don’t like him.”
“So this is his chance to change my mind.”
She eyed the phone, then stood up and walked to the couch, where she flopped down. Picking up the remote control, she started flipping through the channels. “You’re so lame,” she accused.
“Probably. So, since we’re not entertaining Zeke, let’s figure out what the problem is in chemistry. I can’t help you much on the German, but I’m a chemistry ace.”
“Lucky for me,” she mumbled with more than a touch of sarcasm.
“That’s right. This is without a doubt your lucky night.” He sat beside her on the couch and cracked open the huge textbook before taking the remote from her reluctant fingers and turning the television off.
“Why can’t you just leave me alone?”
He grinned. “Come on Lissa, how much fun would that be? I figure I’ve made a mistake, not being around so much, but I’m changing my ways, turning over a new leaf. So you’d better get used to it.”
She probably should have gone straight home.
That would have been the smart thing to do.
It was getting late and she was tired and there was still the issue with Lissa. But after all the talk about St. Elizabeth’s and its imminent closure, after seeing a smattering of her classmates and remembering what they were like in high school, after being dragged kicking and screaming to the past, Kristen couldn’t help herself.
Maybe it was the reporter in her.
Maybe it was just curiosity.
Or maybe it was because it was time to put to rest some old ghosts.
Whatever the reason, she headed out of town and toward Beaverton. Though her old alma mater and her current home were less than five miles apart as the crow flies, they were separated by hills and canyons and winding roads. She’d never felt any need to visit the old campus. In fact, if she thought about it, she’d studiously avoided returning to St. Elizabeth’s.
The beams from her headlights cut through the night, shimmering against pavement growing wet with new rain. She wound through the steep hills of Douglas fir, oak, and cedar, her wipers slapping slowly. She wasn’t completely alone on the county road that ran past the school. Taillights glowed red in the road ahead when she crested small hills, and she met a broken line of oncoming headlights.
How many times had she driven this route during her four years at St. Elizabeth’s? At first her mother, a devout Catholic and a widow who owned a bakery/café on Twenty-third Street, had hauled her to school in the Sweet Nothings delivery van. Kristen had been mortified to be dropped off in the rattletrap of a vehicle when Lindsay Farrell arrived in her father’s Porsche and even Rachel Alsace alighted from her mom’s vintage, but cool, Jeep.
Kristen had saved all the money she’d earned at the bakery, and the minute she turned sixteen and passed her driver’s license test, she bought a 1976 Volkswagen Super Beetle convertible with a dent in one fender and ninety thousand miles under its fan belt. Not in the same class as the Mercedes and BMWs that were parked in the school lot, but better than the stupid van. She’d been in heaven. Innocently unaware of what was to come.
Now, as the buildings of St. Elizabeth’s campus came into view, she felt a chill as cold as winter. The church was there, a massive stone structure with a high bell tower, and set back a bit, the attached convent, where once the nuns who had taught at the school had lived.
Kristen wondered if any of the sisters still resided beyond the thick gates. What had happened to Sister Clarice with her weak chin, rimless glasses, and bloodless lips? Or Sister Maureen with her apple cheeks and tittery laugh? She’d filled the classroom with flowers and always smelled of lilacs. What about the Reverend Mother, Sister Neva, who had been in her seventies twenty years earlier and had walked with a cane and thankfully had never been able to remember Kristen’s name? Were any of them alive? Did they still dwell behind the thick rock walls?
The rain began in earnest, covering the windshield and fogging its interior. Kristen turned the wipers higher and stared through the glass at the school. In the gloom, it seemed miraculously unchanged. Its broad portico, supported by stone pillars, still protected the heavy double doors leading to the main reception area. The building was two stories, faced with the same rock, brick and mortar as the church.
Kristen eased on the gas and inched closer, fighting the sensation that she shouldn’t be there, that she was trespassing into a faraway time and place that was no longer hers.
Her car crept forward and she recognized the gym, set back from the rest of the classrooms, its high, domed roof dwarfing the cafeteria next to it.
The gym. Venue to the doomed Valentine’s Day dance. She tapped her fingers against the steering wheel and wondered about the maze separating the gymnasium from the cloister. Was it still intact? Or hopelessly overgrown? Had the order had the hedges removed, hacked down to stumps after the tragedy, or had the laurel and arborvitae been shaped and manicured, the topiary sculptured as if nothing horrible had ever happened within the garden walls?
“This is nuts,” she told herself as she flipped up the hood of her jacket and grabbed a flashlight from the glove box. She cut the engine and stepped out of the car into the puddles and drizzle of the night, then walked toward the back of the school, stepping over a chain that barricaded the unused gym lot from the delivery alley. The pavement was pockmarked and rutted, but she followed it unerringly to the back of the gym, across a parking lot to the gardens.
The hedge was as she remembered…maybe a little less groomed, a few more weeds surrounding it, but it was there. It didn’t take too much imagination to remember that night, the music in the background, the smell of cigarette smoke, the horrifying sound of Lindsay’s scream and then the sight of Jake, his lifeless body slumped over the heavy arrow pinning him to the tree, the blood everywhere, dark against the trunk of the tree, pooling on the wet grass, staining the front of Jake’s tuxedo and smearing over Lindsay’s dress.
Oh, God, what was she thinking, coming back here to this dark place? She glanced up at the nunnery and saw a few lights glowing in the tracery windows. She swallowed hard as she saw a silhouette in one window, a movement of the blinds.
So what, Kristen?
Someone lives in that room, probably one of the old nuns. She was just walking past the window, lingering there with her Bible and rosary in hand, for crying out loud!
Why are you doing this? Why are you trying to freak yourself out?
She had no answer to that one, but she cut the beam of her flashlight and looked up at the window where the shadow passed and the lights were suddenly extinguished.
Either the person inside was going to bed, had left the room, or had decided to use the darkness to hide him or herself.
Now you’re really getting paranoid. Turn around and go home. Sit by the fire, have a glass of wine or decaf coffee with a shot of Kahlua and a dollop of whipped cream. Treat yourself, you’re alone tonight. No motherly responsibilities.
And still she walked forward, switching the flashlight back on, heading through the entrance to the maze where the walls of shrubbery closed in more tightly, the untended branches brushing against her shoulders, the oddly shaped topiary untrimmed and grotesque. The beam of her flashlight bobbed ahead, offering weak illumination.
What’re you doing out here? she asked herself, understanding subconsciously that this was simply something she had to do, an urge she couldn’t ignore, a driving force that made her squint against the rain and darkness. She caught sight of an old bench, then a fountain, and with each step in the squishy grass, she felt another drip of fear in her blood, an eerie feeling she tried to ignore.
You’re just on edge because you know you’re trespassing, that someone at the convent could see your light and put in a call to the police. What would you tell them, hmm? That you wanted to visit the place where the boy you loved in high school was murdered?
Turning one corner, she stopped short, a wall of branches cutting off her progress.
Odd, she thought, wondering at her misstep. She was certain she’d followed the correct path. A cold blast of wind cut through the heavy shrubbery and touched the back of her neck.
Turn around and go back to the car. For God’s sake, what’re you trying to prove?
Her skin was chilled, but she was going to finish this, whatever the hell it was. Shining the light on the ground, she did an about-face, following her own footprints where the grass was mashed down until she came to another forty-five-degree corner that she didn’t expect. Walking briskly, she found another dead end, another wall of foliage.
“Crap.” She must be more tense than she realized, and now she was more determined than ever. She backtracked again, retracing her steps. At the entrance, she shined her light on the edge of the maze and, seeing slightly smaller, less dense bushes interspersed with the older arborvitae and laurel, realized that the hedge had changed. The maze she’d known by heart had been restructured, and in the darkness, the newer shrubs changing the pathway were already nearly twenty years old and hard to distinguish from the older vegetation.
Perhaps the old tree where Jake had been killed had been cut down. There had been talk of making it a memorial, but Mother Superior had refused the suggestion, not wanting the tragic incident to mar the reputation of the campus or become a destination for the morbidly curious.
“We need to downplay this painful situation and pray for God’s understanding,” Mother Superior had told the student body on the Monday after Jake’s death. “The police have finished their investigation of the grounds and there is no need to sensationalize what happened, nor should we encourage those who are obsessed or curious about the tragedy. Those who want to pay their respects to the poor boy can do so at his grave site…”
It all came back to Kristen now as she walked along the hedgerows, trying to second-guess the new pathways. It took her nearly half an hour before she made the right succession of turns. Suddenly, she was in the center of the maze, the old oak tree still standing, branches naked and spreading in the gloomy night.
Kristen’s heart squeezed as she shined her light over the ground littered by branches. The statue of the Madonna was unscathed, bleached white as ever, hands lifted as if in supplication to God.
An unworldly chill ran through Kristen’s blood as clouds blocked the moon and rain peppered the ground. “Dear God,” she whispered, her hands clenching tight. Her throat closed and she felt hot tears mingle with the cold rain sliding down her cheeks. She imagined Jake as she’d last seen him, slumped and dead, dressed in his rented tuxedo, shot through the heart with an arrow, for God’s sake.
Cupid’s Killer. The newspapers had run that one into the ground.
In her mind’s eye, Kristen once again witnessed Lindsay at Jake’s feet, her ice blue dress dark with the stain of Jake’s blood, her face white with fear, mascara running in black rivulets from her eyes. And then the accusation.
“Why, Kristen? Why did you kill him?”
What had possessed Lindsay that night? Why had she thought Kristen had anything to do with Jake’s death?
Lindsay had never given her a straight answer, not even the next week at school when Kristen had asked her about it.
It had been in the senior hallway, a short first-floor and locker-lined corridor that was wedged between the library and the business offices.
Kristen had found Lindsay struggling to open her locker. “Why did you accuse me of having something to do with Jake’s death?” When Lindsay didn’t immediately respond, she pressed, “Lindsay?”
Lindsay yanked on the combination lock, but the locker held fast. “I…I didn’t know what I was saying. I was in shock. Crazy.” She rattled the locker door more furiously, trying to force the combination lock to spring open. It didn’t budge. “I was upset.”
“We all were. But that doesn’t explain why you blamed me.”
“Okay, I know. I’m sorry!” She was twirling the combination wildly again, her fingers trembling. “What do you want from me? I found Jake there in the middle of the maze, an arrow though his heart. And blood everywhere. I knew…I mean, I knew he was dead. It was like”-she stopped tugging at the lock long enough to stare at Kristen with round, panicked eyes-“it was like I saw his soul leave, Kris. Swear to God, the life went out of his eyes as I got to him and…and I knew his soul had escaped, right in front of me…Oh, God…I was so freaked, so scared, so out of my damned mind and you were the next one who showed up and…and…and he was your date that night. You were supposed to be with him! At the dance. When you knew I was still in love with him!”
“You were broken up,” Kristen fought back, feeling a little niggle of guilt. “Jake and I had always been friends.”
Lindsay made a disparaging sound, then calmed a little. “Apparently you wanted more than that, but…Oh, crap, what does it matter? He’s dead, isn’t he? Nothing’s going to change that.”
“I had nothing to do with his murder.”
Lindsay sighed. Blinked back tears. “As I said, Kris, I went nuts. That’s all. I was crazy. Sorry!” Her chin trembled as she turned back to her locker and added in a whisper, “I don’t know what more I can say.”
Lindsay finally managed to work the combination, the lock sprang, and the door opened. She grabbed her English textbook, but not before Kristen got a glimpse of the inside of the locker door where pictures of Jake Marcott were plastered: snapshots, yearbook photos, his senior picture decorated with ticket stubs and red hearts cut out of shiny red paper.
Shocked, Kristen took a step backward, and the sounds of the normal noises in the hallway between classes, the clatter of shoes on the shiny floors, the clang of slamming lockers, the rumble of laughter and conversation, the buzzing of the tardy bell all were muted, as if those familiar noises came from a very long distance.
Only when Sister Clarice touched her on the shoulder, her black habit rustling with her quick strides, and told her to “get to class, chop-chop,” had Kristen snapped back to the present and hustled up the stairs at the end of the hall, hurrying to slide into her seat in the physics lab before cranky old Mrs. Crandall took roll.
Now, years later, standing in the rain, staring at the tree, she felt chilled to the bone. Alone. With no more answers than she had twenty years earlier. She walked to the tree and shined a light on the gnarled trunk.
“Oh, Jake,” she whispered when she found the mark in the rough bark and ran her fingers in the groove. “Who did this to you?”
She closed her eyes, sent up a prayer, and sighed.
Over the drip of the rain she heard a foreign sound, a rustle of leaves in the wind.
She turned and shined her flashlight onto the hedge behind her. Wet, shiny leaves quivered.
She froze. Felt a frisson of fear. Who else was out here? Had someone followed her? Watched her?
Her heart pounded.
It was probably just a raccoon or possum or skunk…
The branches stilled.
No tiny bright eyes were caught in the flashlight’s beam.
Her pulse pounding in her ears, Kristen moved her small swath of illumination across the wide expanse of greenery, a weak beam of light that seemed to be dimming in the rain. She saw nothing. No movement. Heard no sound other than her own rapid heartbeat and the steady drip of the rain.
No one was here. She was alone. Scared, feeling like she was trespassing, standing in the heavy drizzle in the middle of the night.
Like an idiot.
Quickly, she scanned the area one last time, then turned and made her way out of the labyrinth. She made only one wrong turn, righted herself, and sprinted across the parking lot and over the blemished tarmac of the alley until she found her car parked where she’d left it.
She’d never been so glad to see her little Honda in her life. She unlocked the car with her remote and the Honda’s lights flashed. After tossing the flashlight and her purse into the backseat, she slid behind the wheel and flipped off her coat hood.
Rain slid down her neck. She switched on the ignition and the radio came on…but she hadn’t been listening to it on the way over to the school…what the devil? She glanced down at the illuminated dash and realized it wasn’t the radio at all, but a cassette, stuffed into its slot in the dash. She heard garbled sounds and laughter and music…familiar sounds…oh…my…God…The hairs on the back of Kristen’s neck raised as she listened. The song was a Springsteen classic. “Dancing in the Dark.”
A shudder slid down her spine, and she glanced through the fogging windshield where the wipers were already moving, scraping a pink piece of paper back and forth.
Glancing around, she opened the window and snagged the soggy piece of paper from the glass. The letters on the pink page were faded, the paper nearly torn to shreds, but she recognized it for what it was: the photograph of her and Jake taken at the Valentine’s dance two decades earlier. A picture she’d hidden far away in a school scrapbook that she hadn’t looked at in years. Her stomach knotted as she stared at their faces, smiling, carefree, innocently unaware of what the horrid night would bring. Worse yet, scrawled across their smiles was a jagged red slash, the color of blood.
Kristen nearly screamed.
But she didn’t have to.
Because as Bruce Springsteen’s voice faded and the sounds of the dance so long ago disappeared into the night, there was a second of silence, a click, and then the tape issued a scream of pure, unadulterated terror.
Kristen ejected the cassette, stepped on the accelerator, and tore out of the parking lot.
Her entire body shaking, her heart jackhammering in fear, she glanced in the rearview mirror and thought she saw an image, a quicksilver glimpse of a dark figure, running past the darkened windows of the chapel.
The figure was gone.
Just a figment of your imagination.
No way! Someone knew she’d be at the school that night. Someone had either followed her or been waiting.
She glanced at the passenger seat where the wet, garish picture lay beside the damning cassette.
She’d thought the nightmare was over.
Now she realized it was just beginning.
Run, Kristen. Run as far and as fast as you can. But it won’t help. I’ll find you. I’ve waited this long and I’m not going to let you get away now.
Jake Marcott’s killer stood in the shadows of the overhang of the school, watching the Honda’s retreating taillights as the rain dripped from the overflowing gutters of the portico that was the entrance to good ol’ St. Lizzy’s.
How many times had she stood right in this spot, eyeing the others, wishing she fit in, listening to all of them talking about Jake Marcott as if he were a god, as if they all owned a piece of him?
Little did they know that Jake had never loved any of them.
Never had…never would.
Jesus, they were all such idiots. Kristen, the valedictorian, for God’s sake, was the worst. She was supposed to be smart, but in truth, she was as dumb as a stone. And predictable. So damned predictable. Even if she hadn’t followed her, she would have guessed that Kristen would return to St. Lizzy’s.
All the planning of the reunion would bring back memories of the night of the Valentine’s dance and would drive Kristen here, to literally the scene of the crime. She had known it intuitively.
Which all fit into her plans perfectly. She wondered, watching the taillights disappear in the rain, what Kristen had thought when she’d seen the picture the killer had left on the car. Had she understood the message? Did she know what was coming? Did she feel a scratch of fear along her spine as she’d heard the tape of the dance and Lindsay’s howling, bone-chilling scream?
Oh, just you wait, Kristen.
It’s only going to get worse.
Remember the night Jake was killed? How you found Lindsay? And Jake?
That night had been perfect. From her hiding spot at the end of one hedgerow in the maze, hearing the music and whisper of voices, the killer, still holding the heavy crossbow, had heard frantic footsteps and pulled farther into the shadows. Then, clicking her pocket recorder on again, she’d witnessed Lindsay, her shimmering blue dress catching the moonlight, running into the heart of the maze. The killer had followed a few steps so that she could watch and tape the tall girl’s reaction.
And it had been worth it.
Lindsay, murmuring, “Oh, no, oh, no, oh, no!” had run to the tree where Jake was slumped. She’d tried to revive him, to hold him, to force some life into his already-dead body. “Jake, oh, God, no…Jake! Jake!” His blood had run down the bodice of the icy-blue gown, staining and smearing the expensive garment as she’d tried to revive him. “Oh, no, oh, no…oh…” Then, as if she’d finally understood that this was real, not some dream, Lindsay had let out a high-pitched, bloodcurdling scream that had keened mournfully off the West Hills.
The killer had ducked back and started running, not along the maze’s intricate paths but through three slits she’d made earlier, tiny spots where she’d folded the branches back and slipped through, cutting across the north side of the maze and down a hillock and around the edge of the property until she could slip into her hiding space in the basement of the school, change quickly into her dress again, then return to the group of kids who, smoking dope and drinking, had never really noticed how long she’d been in “the ladies’ room.”
It had all worked so smoothly.
She’d even been clustered with the others when she’d seen Lindsay, her face white, her dark hair falling in disarray, her silk dress stained with the purple-red of Jake Marcott’s blood, stumbling out of the maze. Lindsay had been zombie-like and sobbing out of control. Kristen Daniels had been ashen faced and starting to shake. Rachel Alsace had been horrified and stunned, but already moving into action. She’d immediately demanded that a stricken-faced Sister Clarice call the police and her father immediately.
The other students, faculty, and chaperones had been in varying degrees of terror and shock. Paranoia had begun slowly and had reigned for the rest of the night.
Oh, it had been so good. So damned good.
And it would be again.
The killer smiled coldly in the damp darkness.
Kristen had ejected the tape, but that horrible scream ricocheted through her brain. Her heart was pounding a mile a minute, her fingers clenching the steering wheel so tightly they showed white as she pushed the speed limit to her house. Who would do this to me? Who?
Someone from the reunion committee?
Someone who didn’t show but knew about it?
The damned killer?
Everyone at the meeting ran through her head: Mandy, April, Aurora, Bella, DeLynn, Martina, Haylie…Were there others invited who hadn’t shown? But Haylie was certainly psycho enough, and weird enough, to pull this off. And she’d left early.
Kristen tailgated a car in front of her and checked her rearview mirror continuously. She didn’t know what to expect; whoever planted the sick picture and cassette tape could be following her…to what? Do her physical harm? But if that were the case, wouldn’t he/she/it have waited for her in her car? Or abducted, or hurt, or killed her there at the campus while she was alone?
“Idiot,” she berated herself. She knew better. She read the paper every day, watched the news religiously, kept up on world, national, and local events. She knew there were wackos out in the world and she was usually careful. But not tonight.
Her purse lay on the floor in front of the passenger seat, and now she reached for it and while driving with one hand, searched the side pocket for her cell phone with the other.
Her car drifted a little and she eased it back to the middle of the lane, retrieving her phone at that moment. Flipping it open, she wondered whom to call.
Ross! For God’s sake, get Ross!
She gritted her teeth. Speed dial #2 would instantly connect her to him, but she hesitated. They were separated. On their almost-amicable way to divorce. She couldn’t lean on him.
So call the cops!
And tell them what? That someone left a prank tape and photograph on the car while she was trespassing at St. Elizabeth’s? The police had bigger crimes to investigate. She saw the police blotter every day at the offices of the Clarion.
Dropping the phone, she let out her breath, easing her car onto the secondary road that led up the hill to her house. She checked the rearview. No one was following her.
But someone intended to scare the hell out of her.
“Mission accomplished,” she thought aloud, pushing the button on her remote garage-door opener. She pulled into the garage and didn’t get out of her car until the door had ground back down again.
Still shaken, she grabbed her purse, laptop case, the cassette and marred picture, then tried to pull herself together.
“Get a grip,” she ordered, but it was no use. Whoever had wanted to freak her out had done a damned good job. Who would do this and why? Again, she had no answer. It all came back to someone wanting to scare the bejeezus out of her, someone who didn’t want her either working on the reunion committee or like her poking around St. Elizabeth’s…no, that wasn’t right. She’d had no plans to visit the old school when she’d gone to the committee meeting tonight. Someone had to have followed her.
She just didn’t know who.
“Psycho bitch,” she muttered under her breath, though she couldn’t be certain a man wasn’t behind this.
Walking into the house, she nearly tripped over Marmalade. “Oops, sorry.” She dropped her things on the kitchen table, then scooped up the cat, who wrapped her long, striped tail around Kristen’s side and began purring contentedly and pressing a pink nose into the underside of Kristen’s chin. “Somebody’s lonely.” Kristen forced herself to relax a little as she walked through the house, still carrying the cat, and checked every door and window to make sure they were locked, the house secure. She had no alarm system; she’d always felt safe with Ross around. Even in the later years, when he was home less and less, she’d never worried or been frightened. Now, however, she double-checked every possible entrance.
“Safe and sound,” she said at last as Marmalade, bored with the attention, squirmed in her arms. Kristen let her hop to the floor, where she took up a favorite position on the back of the couch and began grooming herself. The message light was blinking on the answering machine and Kristen hit the Play button.
“You have two messages,” a mechanical voice advised her.
“Hi, Kris, it’s Aurora. I called on your cell and left a message there, but I’ll tell you again. I think the meeting went well. Wasn’t it a hoot to see some of the old gang again? And Haylie…puh-leez, what’s with her? Anyway, I forgot to mention that I think you should use some of your pull at the paper to advertise, well, for free, of course, the reunion. Maybe we’ll reach some classmates who we’ve lost track of. I’m thinking even if they’re still not in town, their parents or grandparents or cousins or somebody might be. And since St. Lizzy’s is giving up the ghost, oh, er holy spirit”-she chuckled at her own joke-“it could make some great human interest stories. Maybe you can interview some of the old nuns who were there when we were. Sister Clarice still lives in the convent, can you believe that? And remember Sister Mary Michael? She’s there, too. Wouldn’t it be great to interview them? Just a thought. Call me later!” She hung up with a click and Kristen deleted the message. The mechanical voice took over again, reminding her of yet another message. The damned thing aggravated her. She’d been threatening to buy a new one but hadn’t gotten around to it. “Next message,” the automated voice said.
“Mom, please, please, please come get me.” Lissa’s voice was a desperate whisper and for a millisecond Kristen’s muscles tightened in fear for her daughter. “I can’t stay here with Dad,” Lissa went on. “It’s just too weird.” She hung up abruptly, probably because her father had walked in on her.
Kristen leaned back against the cupboards, her pulse slowly returning to normal. She was totally spent but she managed a smile. Let the two of them work things out. She wasn’t buying into Lissa’s heroine-in-peril ploy. She was with her dad, for God’s sake. It was time the two of them got reacquainted.
Nerves still a bit jangled, Kristen poured herself a glass of wine, turned on the tap in the tub, added bubble bath, then wound her hair onto her head. After finding her favorite Eagles CD and pushing it into the player, she stripped off her clothes and sank neck deep into warm, frothy water.
She closed her eyes.
Listened to the music.
And, for the moment, pushed all thoughts of Jake Marcott, the marred photograph, the recording of the dance, and anything else that had to do with St. Lizzy’s out of her mind.
Tomorrow she’d deal with everything.
Tonight, after all, was supposed to be her night off.
Her heart was pounding out of control, her body drenched in sweat. Where was Jake? Where? The night was black, the moon hidden by clouds, a thin, rising fog dimmed her vision. Branches slapped her in the face, brambles pulled at her dress. Her feet were bare and the grass was cold and frosty. She stepped around the final turn of the maze and she saw him though the mist. He was slumped, drooping from the tree, an arrow glinting as it impaled him and fastened him to the oak’s thick trunk. His dark hair spilled over his face; his skin was as white as the marble of the statue of the Madonna placed beneath the spreading, brittle branches of the oak. The statue appeared to be crying, a reddish liquid oozing from her eyes.
“Jake!” Kristen cried, running toward him, nearly tripping on an unseen root.
Blood poured from his wound, stained his clothes, trickled down to pool at his feet.
“Jake, oh, God, Jake, what happened? Answer me, oh, please, please!”
Horrified, she reached his sagging body and yanked on the arrow, her hands slipping with the slick warmth of his blood. “No, no, no,” she whispered, pulling harder, her muscles straining.
She heard footsteps. Turned, her hands still clenched over the arrow’s unbending shaft. “Help!” she cried. “We need help! Oh, God, somebody help!”
Looking wraithlike, Lindsay Farrell stepped from the fog. Her eyes were round as saucers, her pupils wide and dark as the night. “You killed him, Kristen,” she accused. “You.”
“No, Lindsay…Please, he needs help. An ambulance. Call 911.”
“This is your fault, Kris, leave him be. I love him. Me.” She cradled Jake’s head in her hands and tenderly kissed his lips. Tears rained from her eyes, mingling with his blood, and he seemed to twitch a little, as if there were still life in him.
Was it possible? Kristen saw his fingers move and she gasped. Could it be? Could Jake still be alive? She reached for her cell phone, but her purse wasn’t with her…She’d left it in the car, the car with the awful note on the windshield.
Backing up, scarcely believing her eyes, she stared at Jake. Lindsay ceased kissing him and both of them turned to stare at her. Their blue eyes were black, and blood smeared Lindsay’s dress. Jake smiled, that incredible, devilish smile that she’d known since she was a child.
“Why, Kristen?” he asked, as if he weren’t in pain, as if nothing were wrong. “Why did you do this to me? I thought we were friends.”
“We were…are…We’re all friends.” As the words passed her lips, everyone who had been at the dance that night and others who hadn’t appeared in the mist. They walked toward her like zombies. Rachel, pale as death, was there along with April. Mandy joined them, her tattered dress falling off her shoulder where a hand, Boyd’s hand, was connected. They were mumbling, whispering, louder and louder until it became a deafening roar, “Why, Kristen, why?” Chad, Nick, Bella, DeLynn, Martina-all advancing upon her as if in slow motion, blood on their hands, no life in their fixed stares. From behind the tree and out of the maze came more people she knew, all dressed in tuxedos and gowns, their faces ashen, blood smeared upon cummerbunds and white shirts and staining red across lace, silk, and satin.
“I didn’t…Jake, I wouldn’t…I love you…” Kristen said, backing up as more kids showed up…Aurora and Dean…then Haylie, holding hands with a smiling, very pale Ian.
Oh, God, oh, God…no, I had nothing to do with this, Kristen tried to say and then she saw Ross…oh, thank God, he was here! She tried to run to him but her feet were stuck and she couldn’t move…Only then did she realize she was sinking in a bog, a mire deep in the maze, and the bog itself was running red with the blood of all the people closing in on her.
“Ross!” she cried, hoping he would save her. “Ross!”
Kristen’s eyes flew open. Panic ripped through her as she blinked into the darkness before realizing she was in her own bedroom. The digital alarm clock glowed the time in a steady bright blue, the numbers blinking out the time: five-forty-five in the morning.
“Oh, Lord,” she whispered, realizing she was covered in sweat though the room was cool. She let out a long tremulous sigh, grateful to have awakened from the dream, relief flooding through her.
“Only a dream, just a damned dream…no, only a nightmare,” she muttered as she snapped on the bedside lamp and heard the sound of rainwater running in the gutters. The light made her wince and she heard a soft meow of protest. Marmalade, who had been curled on the foot of the bed, lifted her tawny head, stretched, then inched upward to press her pink nose against Kristen’s. The cat usually slept with Lissa but had obviously given up hope that she would return. Sometime in the night, Marmalade had slunk into Kristen’s room. “Any port in a storm, eh?” Kristen said, glad for the bit of company. She petted Marmalade’s soft fur as the dream replayed through her mind, all the people, all the accusations, all the guilt. Twenty years of guilt. Once more she thought about that night and how, if she’d done just one thing differently, the tragedy might have been avoided and Jake would be alive today.
If only she’d looked for Jake sooner.
If only she hadn’t let him out of her sight that night.
If only she hadn’t asked him to the damned dance in the first place.
“Let it go,” she told herself, as she had so often in the past. “Let it go, let it go.” She shoved her hair away from her face. Why in the world had she agreed to get involved with the reunion committee? Hadn’t she known it would become a mistake of grand proportions? Okay, so she’d been drafted into the position, but she could have done nothing, just as she had at five, ten, and fifteen years. Either Aurora or another gung-ho, rah-rah St. Lizzy’s alumna could have taken over the reins or the whole thing could have just never happened. So what if the school was going to close? Who cared?
The cat settled onto the pillow next to Kristen’s head. Ross’s pillow. Marmalade’s tiny chin resting on Kristen’s shoulder. “Don’t get too comfortable,” Kristen warned the tabby. “Haven’t you heard? There’s just no rest for the wicked, and that’s you and me, girl. Decidedly wicked. Come on.” Kristen moved and flung off the covers. Marmalade scrambled to the side of the bed and hopped onto the floor. Yawning, Kristen headed for the kitchen with the cat following at a trot. “First item on the agenda? Coffee.” She filled the basket with ground coffee, poured a full pot of water into the carafe, then punched Mr. Coffee’s ON button.
Within seconds, the machine began to gurgle. Kristen wasted no time. While the smell of coffee permeated the first floor and rain ran down the windows, she pulled down the attic ladder in the hallway and climbed to the musty space filled with insulation, cobwebs, Christmas decorations, and baby paraphernalia she’d never had the heart to give away.
This summer, she promised herself. This summer she would clean the attic, divide out Ross’s things, have that garage sale she’d been talking about for years, and be done with it. She flicked on the switch and two bare bulbs illuminated the cluttered, unused space. Old furniture, maternity clothes that were fifteen years out of date, beat-up luggage, and boxes were stuffed into the corners.
Wrinkling her nose at the mouse droppings and insect carcasses, she made her way to a part of the attic where her old textbooks, scrapbooks, and high-school memorabilia were tucked away, boxes her mother had packed when she’d converted Kristen’s room into a home office years before.
The first three boxes were paperbacks and records, tapes and CDs, but on the fourth she hit pay dirt-all the notes, pictures, awards, report cards, and personal items from her desk and bulletin board. Near the bottom were loose pictures that had never made it into her scrapbook.
The first was one of Kristen, Rachel Alsace, and Lindsay Farrell, three girls beaming for the camera, though their smiles were false. Kristen frowned, pushed the photo aside and picked up the next, which was a group shot in the parking lot of St. Elizabeth’s, one corner of the arborvitae maze visible. Mandy, Aurora, Haylie, Bella, DeLynn, and Kristen were huddled together in the rain.
It was weird, Kristen thought, staring at the images. All of them were so young and fresh-faced in the photo. DeLynn had been the only black student at that time and Bella, having skipped fourth grade, had been the youngest. Haylie was glowing and in the picture she was wearing a ring-Ian Powers’s class ring. Aurora, ever the cutup, had placed her hand behind Mandy’s head, either giving a peace sign or giving Mandy the illusion of having horns. As for Kristen, she was looking at something in the distance, seemingly unaware of the camera.
She remembered. No one else had noticed Jake Marcott driving into the parking lot. But she had. She’d never missed anything that had concerned Jake. “Stupid, stupid girl,” she murmured, spying the wistful look on her face in the photo. She’d had a crush on him forever even though she’d only been his “friend,” and that was largely through Bella. Lindsay was the one who’d seriously dated him.
To dispel the wave of nostalgia, she quickly flipped through a few more yellowing snapshots before she found the jacket for the photo she was searching for, the one taken of Jake and her at the dance. She opened the paper folder and it was empty.
Her heart lurched.
The photo was missing. She searched through the loose pictures again, but it wasn’t there. Kristen’s brows drew into a frown. She so clearly remembered posing with Jake. They’d stood beneath an arbor of fake roses, their arms around each other, their heads turned toward the camera.
Was the picture that had been plastered over her windshield her own? Had someone taken the photo from its jacket? The box didn’t appear to be disturbed, but maybe she just couldn’t tell. When was the last time she’d seen the photo? When she’d moved these boxes up here fifteen years earlier? Or had she even looked then?
Or was it taken yesterday, while you were at work? The bathroom window was open…
“Hello?” Ross’s voice boomed from below. “Kris?”
Her first impulse was to run to him and throw herself into his arms. That was how unnerved she felt. Then she caught herself short and looked down at her old flannel pajamas. She hadn’t even brushed her teeth yet. Or combed her hair.
“Kris? You here?”
She hurried down the attic stairs and was on the bottom rung when he appeared at the end of the hall. Jesus, he looked good: hair still damp from a shower or the rain, faded denim shirt, battered leather jacket, not unlike the one he wore in college a lifetime ago. “Hey, you okay?” he asked, his intense gray eyes trained on her.
“Yeah, just…just getting ready.”
His gaze slid up the staircase. “In the attic?”
“Of course not. I…I had to get something for the reunion committee.”
“Up there?” he asked, motioning to the picture in her hand.
“Yeah. I was looking for my yearbook.”
“I was just looking through the boxes when I heard you.” That really wasn’t much of a lie. “There’s a lot of stuff up there. Some of it’s yours.”
He wasn’t derailed. “Looks like you found something, though,” he said, hitching his chin toward the kitchen.
He was already walking down the short hallway and she followed, all the while knowing what was to come. Last night, cold and wet and freaked out, she’d dropped everything she’d been carrying onto the kitchen table. Her purse, laptop, and notes as well as the tape and marred picture she’d found in her car.
Great, she thought, just what she wanted to do, talk it all over with her soon-to-be ex. She asked, “Where’s Lissa?”
“I dropped her off at school.” He was already pouring two cups of coffee. Unerringly he found the fat-free milk in the fridge, poured a stream of the bluish liquid into her cup, then handed it to her. He drank his black. “She promised to come straight home after school. On the bus.” He glanced over at Kristen. “That’s a lie, of course. I think she spent half the night talking to that cretin of a boyfriend of hers.”
“Did you call him that to her face?”
“Nope.” He tested his coffee, looking at Kristen over the rim of his cup. “Want to tell me what’s going on?”
“Do it anyway.”
“Not this morning. I really don’t have time for-”
“Make time.” He kicked out a chair and settled into it. “You can be late for work.”
“No, I really can’t.” She didn’t want to discuss any of this with him. At least not now.
“Then talk fast.” He jabbed a finger at the wet, red-slashed picture of Kristen and Jake. “Where’d you get this photo? At the reunion committee meeting?” He didn’t bother hiding the sarcasm in his voice. “Or was it one of your keepsakes?” Before she could answer, he glared at the cassette tape. “And what’s this?” Without asking he took the cassette tape, walked into the den, and slid it into the tape deck.
Kristen braced herself.
With a push of a button, the noises from the dance, the music, the talk, the laughter, and then the bone-chilling scream echoed through the house.
Standing barefoot in the kitchen, her cup of coffee untouched in her hands, her heart thudding as hard as it had the night before, she listened to the horror. Old memories surfaced. The nightmare spun again.
Ross listened, his expression turning more grim as the tape played, the lines near the corners of his mouth turning white as the horrible scream filled the house. When the sounds faded away, he flipped the tape out of the deck and turned, staring hard at her. Gone was any trace of humor. In its stead was a confused anger. “Okay, Kris. Time to level with me. What the hell is going on?”
Against her better judgment Kristen gave Ross the rundown, from the minute she’d driven into Ricardo’s parking lot to meeting old friends, Haylie’s scene, then the drive to St. Elizabeth’s, where she’d found the disturbing picture and blood-chilling tape in her car.
At first she was hesitant, but as she began explaining, she started talking faster and faster, watching his reaction move from anger to concern as he ignored his coffee.
Once she was finished, he shook his head. “What in God’s name were you thinking going back to the school, the maze in the middle of the night?”
“I don’t know, but it wasn’t that someone would follow me or leave me a tape of the dance!” She leaned back in her chair, pushing her hair from her eyes. “What do you think it means?”
“Nothing good. You should go to the police.”
“And tell them what? That I was trespassing and that someone left a marked-up picture and cassette tape of the dance in my car? They’d say it was a prank-I mean, I think it is. Right?”
He didn’t smile. “I think it’s more than a prank. Anything else happen?”
She hesitated, thought of the opened bathroom window.
“Okay, so yesterday, before the reunion, the bathroom window was left open a crack, but I never open it. I didn’t think it was that big a deal; nothing was missing.”
“But someone could have been here for hours, searching the place, looking for the picture.”
“That’s a pretty big gamble. Who knew I had it?”
“Exactly, who did know?”
She shrugged, reached for the photo, and turned it over. Though smudged, the name, phone number, and address of a local photographer were still legible. “Ron Phillips Studio in Beaverton,” she said.
“I remember that place.”
“Is it still open?”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “Don’t think so.”
“I think I’ll check it out. Nose around a little.” What would it hurt to do some digging? Try to locate the owner of the studio.
“I vote for the police. This could be dangerous, Kris,” Ross said, leaving his barely touched coffee on the table. “Did you look outside the window, check for footprints?”
“No. It was dark, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t think about it.”
“Maybe they’re still there.” He walked to the pantry, grabbed a flashlight, then headed to the front door and pulled it open, letting in a blast of cold, wet air.
“Don’t let Marmalade out-”
Too late. The cat, sensing a chance for escape, had slipped through the doorway. Ross didn’t seem to notice as he stepped outside.
Kristen finished her coffee and was putting her cup in the dishwasher when he returned, rain wetting his face and dappling the shoulders of his jacket. “Well?” she asked, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.
“Inconclusive. It looks like someone might have walked back there, but that’s also near the spot where the cable comes into the house, and it looks like you had some work done.”
“Two weeks ago. The cable was out.”
“So much for my detecting skills.”
“Nancy Drew doesn’t have to worry that you’ll take her job?” Kristen teased and to her surprise, he lifted a dark eyebrow, surprised at her joke.
“Nancy’s safe.” He walked toward her, and in her mind’s eye she remembered making love on the sandy shore of a lake hidden high in the Cascades. It had been near dusk, mist had risen off the clear water, and as they’d kissed and pulled off each other’s clothes, it had seemed that they were the only two people in the universe.
She swallowed hard, licked her lips, and felt her skin flush. Ross had always had that effect on her. Always. Obviously, it hadn’t changed.
“Yeah, but are you?”
“What?” Dear Lord, was she blushing.
“Safe?” He moved close enough that she could smell the rainwater on his skin, hear the creak of leather as he reached around her to place the flashlight on the counter near the sink. The back of his hand brushed against her bare arm and she flinched, as if burned.
“I think we’re blowing this all out of proportion,” she said, stepping away from him. He leaned a hip against the edge of the stove and stared at her. Damn the man, sometimes she thought he could read her mind. “Look, if anyone really wanted to harm me, I would be dead by now. Someone’s just trying to freak me out.”
She tossed her towel on the counter, annoyed that her pulse had skyrocketed. “That’s a good question. I don’t have an answer yet.”
“Are you going to talk to members of the committee?”
“Of course. Don’t worry, Ross, I’ll take it from here.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Well, neither do I, but there it is.” She glanced at the clock on the counter. “Geez, I’ve got to run. I’m gonna be late.”
“Look, if you really want to help,” she called over her shoulder, half running down the hall, “find the damned cat and let her in. Otherwise she’ll be out in the rain all day.”
She shut the bedroom door behind her and waited, shoulders pressed against the panels of the door, her breath held tight in her lungs until she heard him leave. The back door opened and closed, his truck’s engine roared to life. She let out a sigh. What was it about Ross that made her so crazy? Thinking sexy thoughts about him one minute, wanting to wring his neck the next? “Because you’re an idiot,” she muttered, turning on the spray in her shower, then stripping out of her pajamas.
And there’s a part of you that still loves him.
That thought hit her hard. Ridiculous. Whatever she’d felt for Ross Delmonico was long, long dead. She stepped under the spray and turned the faucet to allow a blast of cold water to hit her full force.
She gasped as the icy needles of water hit her skin.
She would have no more hot, sensual thoughts of Ross Delmonico even if she had to take a hundred cold showers.
Ross didn’t like what was happening.
Not one little bit.
His family was falling apart.
He turned off the radio, flipped on the windshield wipers, and reluctantly turned his black truck toward the freeway. First there was his daughter. Lissa was on a fast train to trouble with her attitude toward school and that scumbag of a boyfriend of hers. He’d been a horny teenager. He knew what that kid was thinking.
Then there was what was happening with Kristen and the damned reunion. He’d been against the thing from the start, figuring it would just stir up her old, unresolved feelings about Jake Marcott. But he’d had no say in the matter. It was her life, which she’d so angrily pointed out on more than one occasion.
He let it go, deciding he’d fought the ghost of Jake Marcott long enough. But now someone else wasn’t letting it lie. Someone else was resurrecting the past.
Ross waited at the ramp signal to northbound I-5, seeing the taillights of thickening traffic, hearing the rush of engines and tires, but driving on automatic, by rote, his mind going over bit by bit what he’d learned in the last twelve hours.
What the hell had Kristen been thinking, going back to the school at night? Alone, for God’s sake.
Not alone; someone was definitely following her.
No way. The light turned green and Ross stepped on the accelerator, threading into the steady stream of traffic heading into the Terwilliger Curves, a section of the freeway known for its winding path through the hills. He held the steering wheel so hard his knuckles bleached white.
Someone was messing with his family.
And it was because of the damned reunion.
Remember, Jake Marcott’s killer was never located.
Ross braked as a semi beside him eased a little close to his lane. The trucker kept control of his rig and Ross gunned it, moving past the eighteen-wheeler.
He saw the exit for Macadam Avenue and jockeyed into position for the off-ramp. He knew what he had to do.
His daughter wouldn’t like it and his wife would throw one helluva hissy fit. But it was just too damned bad. Until this mystery was solved-and maybe even after it was-Ross intended to insert himself back into their lives.
“So…how did the, what did you call it-‘the reunion meeting from hell’? Yeah, that was it. How’d it go?” Sabrina asked once Kristen had settled into her chair. Because of Ross, Kristen was running late. Damn the man. She remembered the concern that etched across his face as he’d stared at the photo and felt warmed.
She had to mentally shake herself. Don’t buy into it. Where was he when you needed him? When Lissa needed him? And who the hell does he think he is that he can just barge into your life and start handing out advice?
“It went,” she said, answering Sabrina’s questions. “Not great, but it went.” She shoved her purse into a drawer and pressed her computer’s ON button.
Sabrina was leaning both hips against the edge of her desk, long legs stretched out in front of her, and pointing a manicured nail in Kristen’s direction. “You survived.”
“Barely.” Kristen rolled her chair away from her computer monitor.
“It couldn’t have been that bad.”
Kristen thought of Haylie’s outburst and the eerie note and tape left in her car. “It was pretty bad.”
“But you couldn’t pawn off the responsibility of running the thing?”
“Nope. Believe me, I tried.”
“Give yourself a chance, you might just have some fun with this,” Sabrina said, a slow smile spreading across her face.
“Think so? Well, get this, you might be invited.”
“Me?” Her black eyebrows drew together. “I didn’t go to St. Lizzy’s.”
“No, but your husband went to Western. Graduated the same year I did, right? Class of ’86?”
Sabrina’s grin slowly fell. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“The vote was to ask the Western boys to join us, so, being as you’re the spouse, you too could be a part of the festivities. Hey! I could work it out so that you could be in charge of decorations or name tags or-”
Sabrina had pushed herself off the edge of her desk. She held her hands in front of her in the classic “stop” position. “Okay, okay. I get the picture. Don’t be signing me up for any committees, and don’t let anyone talk to Gerard. He’s got enough on his plate already.”
“I think someone from Western, probably Craig Taylor or Chad Belmont, will be contacting him.”
She groaned as her phone rang and she turned her attention back to work.
The rest of the day was uneventful. Kristen polished up a couple of stories, turned them in to the editor, then, when things were at a lull, thought more about the tape, marred photo, and the night of Jake Marcott’s death. Surely the newspaper had articles about what had happened that night, the murder and subsequent investigation. She only had to look. At four o’clock, she began searching all the old computer records, but the information went back only twelve years. Eventually, she made her way downstairs and into the basement. In a windowless room with the fluorescent lights humming overhead, she sat on a stool at a small desk and stared into the viewer until she found the first story on Jake’s murder, printed the day after the dance.
Her skin crawled as she read the account, a clinical, facts-only report of the killing at a private school. So much was left out: the human emotion, the pain, the heartache.
Setting her jaw, she worked forward, searching the following editions, looking for information about the investigation. Unfortunately the information was limited:
Jake had been a student at Western Catholic.
Services were held at St. Ignatius.
He was survived by his parents, James and Caroline, one grandmother, Maxine Baylor, and three siblings, Bella, Naomi, and Luke.
Students, chaperones, and faculty attending the dance had been questioned, as had family and friends and acquaintances of Jake Marcott.
The murder weapon, a crossbow, had been discovered in the maze at St. Elizabeth’s and was found to have belonged to a bow hunter who had reported it missing sometime in December. The bow hunter had a strong alibi and was dismissed as a suspect.
There was information about Jake, including the fact that he played football and baseball and had been in an accident during the Christmas break in which another Western student, Ian Powers, had died.
The police were asking the public’s help in solving the crime.
The lead investigator for the “Cupid Killer,” Detective Mac Alsace, was looking into “new leads every day,” but the case had eventually gone cold and references to Jake Marcott’s death had disappeared.
Kristen printed out a few of the articles, turned off the viewer, put the microfiche away, and rubbed the kinks from her neck. She was stiff from sitting in one position and hadn’t learned much more than she already knew.
That night, she dealt with Lissa, who said in no uncertain terms that she’d never spend another night at Ross’s condo.
Real good father-daughter relationship, Kristen thought, keeping mum on her feelings.
To her surprise and Lissa’s disgust, Ross came over that evening, bringing with him five white boxes of take-out Chinese. Lissa, who had rolled her eyes upon his arrival, hadn’t been able to resist the tantalizing aromas of cashew chicken, sesame beef, and peanut sauce. They ate on the floor in the den, watching some inane music awards show on television, and Ross didn’t even remark when Lissa, after receiving a call on her cell, took her plate and phone to her room.
When she didn’t immediately return and Ross looked ready to go get her, Kristen pointed a chopstick at his chest. “Don’t,” she warned.
“But we were having dinner. Can’t she give up her calls for half an hour?”
“For God’s sake, Ross, how hypocritical can you get? How many times did your dinner get cold while you talked on the phone with some subcontractor?”
“That’s different. It was business. Important.”
“This is important to her.”
“Then we need to set some rules.” She raised an eyebrow, daring him to continue, and Ross didn’t disappoint. “No phone calls at dinner. Not for any of us.”
Kristen frowned as she chewed on a piece of tangy shrimp. “Wait a minute. So you think that we”-she rotated the chopstick in a circular motion to include Ross, herself, and the empty cushion recently vacated by their daughter-“we’ll be doing this often?”
“I’m just saying whenever we have a family dinner, some rules should be observed.”
“A little late for that, isn’t it?”
“It’s never too late.” He was serious and she caught his meaning, felt the atmosphere in the room shift a bit.
“Wait a minute. We’re talking about dinner together as a family, right? Nothing more.”
“What more do you want?”
She felt her damned cheeks flame. “Don’t do this, Ross, okay? Don’t start that talking-in-circles thing you do. Let’s just play it straight. If you’re talking about you and me getting back together, if you think that we shouldn’t go through with the divorce, then you’re wrong.”
“You haven’t filed yet.”
“I know.” She stared at the fire, while on the television in the background some girl of about seventeen, dressed in next to nothing, was belting out a song as if her life depended upon it. “It’s a big step.” She sighed and shook her head. “I want you to know that when I took my wedding vows, I…I meant them.”
“So did I.”
Kristen felt overwhelmed. She should never have started wading into this river. The current was too damned dangerous and was bound to pull her under.
Her cell phone rang and she immediately started to get up.
Quick as lightning, Ross’s hand clasped over her wrist. She nearly dropped her plate. “Let it ring,” he insisted, gray eyes holding hers.
“But-” His hands were warm, fingertips pressed into the flesh inside her arm. How many times had he rubbed his hands up her arms as he’d kissed her? How many times had they tumbled so easily into bed? Her pulse beat unsteadily.
“New rule, remember?”
“I didn’t agree to any rule. You know how I hate them.” Would he please release her? The feel of his skin against hers was way too distracting.
The phone blasted again.
“It could be important. My mom-”
“Feeble excuse, Kris. Your mom is healthy as a horse.”
“How would you know?” She tried to pull her arm away, but he held on tight.
“She called me a couple of weeks ago. Is interested in the condos on the river. Is hoping I’ll give her a deal.”
“You know Paula.”
Kristen inwardly groaned. Ever since selling the bakery, Paula Daniels had fancied herself an investor. Ross was right, she was always trying to finagle a good deal.
The phone rang again and Kris gave up, flopping back against the couch. “Okay,” she said in surrender and Ross loosened his grip. “You win. Again.” She ignored the warm spot where his fingers had touched her pulse, refused to stare into his seductive gray eyes another second. Damn, what was she thinking? Of kissing him? Of making love to him? Now that would be a mistake she couldn’t dare risk. Ross Delmonico had always had a way of turning her inside out when it came to sex.
Using a key she’d had made two decades earlier, Jake’s killer unlocked the door at the bottom of the outside stairwell and moved inside. It was dark and smelled of dust, dirt, and mold. As she closed the door behind her and slid the lock into place, she heard the steady drip of rainwater that had seeped through the cracks of the old school and the scratch of tiny claws against concrete, no doubt rats and mice who had found homes in this little-used storage space that held old, forgotten relics of St. Elizabeth’s.
A shame they were planning to tear the old place down.
The wrecking ball was scheduled for sometime next year and by that time, all of her work would be done.
And work it was.
Silently and familiarly, using the tiny beam of a small penlight, she dodged broken benches and desks, lab tables and outdated, now rusted, physical education equipment to reach a long-forgotten closet with an old combination lock she’d installed herself-just to be on the safe side. She held the lock in her palm, turned it over, saw the initials scratched on the back, and smiled to herself.
Big as life.
A bell tolled and she froze, then smiled as the peals echoed through the campus, just as they did at each hour of the day. She rotated the dial to the combination. The lock sprang and she was inside her own little chamber, her private place in the universe.
Once the door was closed behind her, she flicked her lighter to the wick of an old kerosene lantern. As the lamp began to glow and her eyes adjusted, she saw the fruition of her years of labor, the perfect room for what she’d planned for so long.
She’d done her work over the years, gathering items at garage sales, estate sales, the local thrift shop run by the parish, St. Vincent De Paul stores, and, when all else failed, resorting to stealing the most valued items. Then she’d lucked into an unexpected bonanza. A few years after Jake’s death, the interior of St. Elizabeth’s had been remodeled and old desks, equipment, lockers, tables, and the like had been sold at an auction.
Which had been perfect.
She’d bought several lockers, the numbers burned into her brain forever, lockers that had once belonged to that unique circle of friends who were linked by one boy: Jake Marcott.
Under the cover of darkness, she’d brought them here…back home to a hidden room beneath the auditorium of the old school. Each of their graduation pictures had been duplicated, laminated, and affixed to the lockers with their corresponding numbers: Rachel Alsace, locker 102; Kristen Daniels, locker 118; Lindsay Farrell, locker 123…and there were others, of course, all of the girls in that certain special clique.
Licked her lips.
Oh, how long she had waited.
Now, it seemed, she was about to be rewarded.
She sent up a prayer of thanks, made a hasty sign of the cross, then opened the locker that had once belonged to Kristen Daniels, now Delmonico. Inside were several artifacts: Kristen’s final report card, the one that had sealed her place as valedictorian over the next two in line, Bella Marcott and Mandy Kim; Kristen’s list of awards and achievements printed in the yearbook, including scholarship offers, writing commendations, and her duties as editor of St. Lizzy’s newspaper and captain of the debate team; her French III textbook, the one she’d thought she’d lost on a trip to visit the University of Washington campus.
And finally, and best yet, Kristen’s diary, the little leather-bound book with its ridiculous key, the secret tiny volume of written notes, dreams, and wishes that had disappeared from under her mattress. Kristen had been sick with mortification, worried that her mother had found and discarded the diary-or worse yet, that some of the boys from Western, known for their pranks, might have somehow gotten into her room and found it, only to reveal its contents. She’d been in a panic for weeks when she’d noticed it missing.
The killer smiled when she remembered Kristen’s distress.
It had been the beginning.
Now, in the flickering light of the lantern, she opened the diary to one of the last entries, one of her personal favorites:
I can’t believe it! Jake said yes! I invited him to the dance and he agreed! Lindsay will be upset when she finds out and Rachel already thinks I’m out of my mind, but I’m in heaven. Jake Marcott is going to the Valentine’s Dance with me!
I just know it’s going to be a night I’ll never forget.
And so it had been, the killer thought…so it had been.
During the next three weeks, nothing out of the ordinary happened, unless it was that Ross had been sticking around a lot more and that Kristen was beginning to feel safe again. But now, driving home from work, Kristen didn’t know whether to be irritated, suspicious, or just accept the situation and see what developed. She’d still not filed the divorce papers and wondered about that. Why the hesitation? She’d made the decision, hadn’t she? Just because Ross was suddenly showing some interest in his family wasn’t enough of a reason to stop the inevitable-or was it? So far, she’d adopted a “wait and see” attitude; she could always tell her attorneys to continue.
The rest of her life was routine. Her position and responsibilities at the Clarion hadn’t changed and she was still wondering if she should try and change jobs, look for a new perspective. She’d heard Willamette Week was interviewing for an editor but, for the moment, she’d decided against making any more major alterations in her life. She was already on the horns of a dilemma about her divorce, and Lissa seemed even more distant and rebellious. Sometimes, with her daughter, Kristen felt as if she were tiptoeing through a minefield, never certain when the next emotional explosion would occur.
Changing lanes, she squinted against a lowering sun as she headed west. For the first time in months, she scrounged in the console for her sunglasses and plopped them onto her nose before realizing they were dusty and covered with fingerprints.
Tonight was the next meeting of the reunion committee and she wasn’t looking forward to it. Though she didn’t have the same trepidation as she’d had a month earlier, she still wasn’t red-hot on the idea of running the show.
Aurora had reported in twice since the last time they’d met, and everyone was doing her assigned task. Kristen had talked to Sister Clarice, who had spoken with the powers that be at the convent, and a date for the event had been chosen, the venue of the old school approved. Sister Clarice had reluctantly agreed to be interviewed, along with a few of her peers, for a series of articles the Clarion would run. According to Aurora, the Western Catholic graduating class was “on board,” so at least a portion of the festivities would include their alumni. A caterer had been secured, decorations planned and the official invitations were about ready to be sent.
It looked like the whole damned thing was coming together-and no further warnings had occurred. Kristen had never told any of the reunion committee what had happened at St. Elizabeth’s campus the night of the first meeting, nor had she mentioned that she’d been there. She figured if Aurora or any of the others had experienced something similar, they would have said so. So up till now Kristen had decided to bide her time, but tonight she planned to show everyone on the committee what she’d found.
In the interim she’d also tried to track down the photographer who had taken the picture at the dance, just on the off chance that the photo left in her car wasn’t the original. Maybe her copy was simply missing…maybe…
Lost in thought, behind a slow-moving cement truck on Canyon Drive, she nearly jumped from her skin when her cell phone jangled. She found it in the pocket of her purse and, after changing lanes and exiting off the main road, she answered just before voicemail picked up. “Hello?”
“Kris!” Her mother was always delighted to catch her.
“Hi, Mom. How are ya?” Kristen felt a little jab of guilt. She and her mother usually met once a week for lunch or dinner, but lately they’d been playing phone tag, which had been as much Paula’s fault as her own. Though Paula Daniels was an AARP card-carrying senior citizen, she hadn’t slowed down an iota. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.”
“I got your messages and meant to call earlier, but I’ve been busier than ever, if you can believe that. I’ve been elected president of our little women’s group at the golf course and I’ve got that bridge group with Henry and, believe it or not, the woman who bought the bakery is wanting me to come in and work a few days a week.”
“I’m thinking it over. Depends on if I move.”
“Ross said you asked him about his condos on the river.”
“Wouldn’t that be fun! And no more mowing the damned grass…if the price was right, I’d jump on it like a flea on a dog! And Henry’s interested too.”
Henry was, as her mother called him, “her main squeeze.” Kristen had never asked exactly what that meant and figured she was better off not knowing.
“I hear you’re seeing Ross again, that the divorce is on hold.”
“Where’d you hear that?” Kristen demanded, slowing for a corner, then nearly standing on the brakes as a squirrel darted across the road.
“Well, is it, or isn’t it? You know, I’ve always liked Ross and he is Melissa’s father, and well, I do believe that no matter what your troubles are, you can fix them. No marriage is a picnic, believe me, but there are those vows about sickness and health, good times and bad and…”
“We were married by a justice of the peace,” Kristen reminded her as she sped up for the final rise to her house. Why was she having this conversation with her mother, why?
“You should have had Father McIntyre-”
“But we didn’t, okay? That’s water under the bridge.” She turned into her driveway one-handed and hit the brakes again. Once the car had rolled to a stop, she let the engine idle and pressed the garage door opener with her free hand.
“I didn’t call to get into a fight. I thought you and I and Melissa could get tickets to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it’s coming to town, to Keller Auditorium, in July and has had fabulous reviews.”
“Sounds good.” Keller Auditorium was one of the largest and most upscale theaters in Portland and the venue for a lot of the touring Broadway shows.
“I’ll order them…if I can get a Saturday night. Should I get one for Ross, too?”
“No!” Kristen scaled back her tone with an effort. “Let’s just make it a girls’ night out, okay? You, me, and Lissa.”
“Henry will be disappointed, and I know Melissa has a boyfriend.” Paula was using that wheedling tone that Kristen had always found irritating.
The thought of sitting for hours in an upscale theater with Zeke was too much. He’d probably wear a stocking cap over his ears and be plugged into his iPod, or be trying to make out with Lissa.
“Come on, Mom. Let’s make this a women thing.”
Paula sighed loudly and Kristen knew she hadn’t heard the end of this particular discussion. “I’ll let you know when I get them. I think there are some bargains on-line.”
“Good seats, though, Mom, okay? Nothing under the balcony. And make sure they’re all together this time. I’ll pay the extra cost.”
“Mmm-hmm…I’ll get the best I can finagle. Oh, gotta run. Got another call coming in…it’s Henry…and I don’t know how to put you on hold.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll talk later.”
Kristen hung up as she entered the kitchen through the garage side door. She figured she was doomed. Her mother wasn’t one to change her mind easily. For some reason she wanted a group date with the men involved. “Save me,” Kristen murmured.
She checked on Lissa, who was seated at her desk, actually working on homework, even though the buds for her iPod were plugged into her ears.
“I’m going out tonight, remember?” Kristen said and when her daughter didn’t respond, shouted, “Lissa!” so loudly that Marmalade, who had been seated on the windowsill, scrambled from her perch, hissed at Kristen showing fierce, needle-sharp teeth and an incredible pink tongue, then scurried beneath the skirt of Lissa’s bed. She peered out balefully, as if Kristen were suddenly the enemy. “Ingrate,” Kristen muttered at the cat.
Lissa pulled out one of her earbuds. “What?” she asked in a bored tone.
“I’m going to a meeting tonight. The reunion again. I shouldn’t be gone long. There’re some Lean Cuisines in the freezer.”
Lissa rolled her eyes.
“Big deal. Dad’s coming over.” Another exaggerated roll of her expressive gray, and overly made-up, eyes. “Didn’t he tell you?”
“I must have missed that memo.” Of course Ross hadn’t said anything. Lately, he didn’t seem to understand that she needed some warning before he strolled into the kitchen. Ever since the night of the first reunion meeting, Ross had been making a point of inserting himself into their lives again. It bugged her, but worse yet, Kristen found herself kind of enjoying the attention a bit, too.
Now she gritted her teeth. For whatever reasons, Ross was playing the part of interested, concerned father, and for that Kristen was on board. She wasn’t as certain she liked his renewed attentions to her…it was as if some switch had flipped back on. Suddenly he was smart, witty, and attentive-more so than he’d been in years. But what did it mean? How long would it last?
Bottom line: she didn’t trust him.
And she didn’t trust herself when it came to him.
It was just too easy to fall into that trap again.
“He said he was going to bring dinner again. Oh, wow,” Lissa said, curling her lip, “another Dad date.”
“Could be worse,” Kristen pointed out.
“Could be taking you to his condo.”
Lissa looked stricken. The thought of being stranded in Ross’s Portland high-rise was enough to give her apoplexy. Forget the fact that she’d go there with her cell phone and iPod and have e-mail access through his computer; in Lissa’s opinion spending a night in the condo was a jail sentence.
“I’ll be back before ten, I think,” Kristen said, but her daughter was already plugged in again, her nose pointed toward her open algebra book, while on the computer screen someone named ZeeMan was instant-messaging her.
No doubt Zeke.
Kristen bit her tongue and walked the few steps to her room, where she showered, changed, slapped on some lipstick and mascara, then ran her fingers through her hair and called it good. She had just picked up her laptop and notes when Ross, pocketing his keys, walked in.
She tried not to notice how good he looked, but her female antennae picked up everything in a flash. His black hair was unkempt, aviator sunglasses covered his eyes. He was wearing khaki slacks and a white shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows to show off tanned, sinewy forearms. His tie hung from a loosened collar, which added to the image of hardworking businessman ready for a little R &R. “Hi,” he said, tossing his keys and wallet onto the table.
“I didn’t know you were coming over.”
Taking off the sunglasses, he added them to the pile of his personal things. “Time got away from me. Meetings with those jackasses at the bank, a financing snafu that could hold up the entire Macadam project, and then more problems with a plumbing subcontractor. I didn’t have a second to breathe, let alone call and-” He stopped himself, shoved his hair from his eyes, and offered her a rueful smile. “I’m sorry. I should have phoned.”
He held up his hands as if in surrender. “Won’t happen again.”
She didn’t believe him for a second, and it must’ve shown in her expression because his grin widened and he made an exaggerated cross over his chest. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Yeah, right. Okay, okay, I forgive you. This time, but I gotta go. Already late for the meeting.” She grabbed her purse and tried to brush by him.
She looked up into his teasing eyes, so damned seductive with their tiny striations of blue in the gray irises.
“I have to apologize for one more thing.”
“And what is that?” Her blood pressure was already elevating.
“This.” He pulled on her arm, yanked her to him, and suddenly kissed her. A deep, hot kiss. Surprised, Kristen gasped, and he took advantage of her open mouth, his lips molding to hers, his tongue touching and exploring.
She reacted instinctively, her stupid, wayward body beginning to melt, her bloodstream surging, her heart pounding a staccato rhythm. You don’t want this, you don’t, her mind was screaming at her, but her body, so long without a man’s touch, so anxious for the feel, taste, and smell of him, responded eagerly. Heat skittered up her spine, spreading across the back of her neck. Her knees threatened to buckle. She dropped her purse on the floor. It landed with a soft clunk.
Lissa’s disgusted voice pierced through the haze of desire, and Kristen pulled back from Ross as if she’d been yanked by an invisible wire. Glancing past him, she spied her daughter, nose wrinkled as if she’d smelled something rotten, staring at her.
Lissa turned and swept down the hallway and quickly into her room. The door banged shut.
Kristen felt her cheeks flushing. She took one step after Lissa, then stopped. “You handle this,” she said tightly.
Ross, damn him, was grinning like a Cheshire cat. “I will.”
“It was just a kiss, Kris. A nice one. A very nice one. But just a kiss.” He slid his eyes toward the hallway where Lissa had disappeared. “We are grown up and married.”
Kristen groaned, more at herself than anything else.
“It’s not like we were ‘doing it’ here on the kitchen floor.” Unfortunately Kristen’s mind recalled a time when they had done it on the kitchen floor. Ross seemed to pick up on her thoughts, because he laughed and his eyes twinkled in the way that really got to her. “You’re just mad ’cuz you liked it.”
She made a strangled sound but couldn’t deny it. “Yeah, all right, I liked it. I didn’t want it, but okay, it was…nice.” She picked up her purse again and grabbed her laptop. “Doesn’t mean it’ll ever happen again.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” he said as she walked out the door and pulled it shut harder than she’d planned. What was it about that man that made her so crazy?
She decided she didn’t have time to think about it. Not right now. Not when she was on her way to Ricardo’s. Tucked inside one pocket of her computer case was the mutilated picture of Jake and her at the dance. In another compartment was the tape. Though she had a small cassette recorder with her, the one she used while interviewing, she didn’t intend to play the tape unless she had to.
Ross rapped softly on his daughter’s bedroom door, but before Lissa could shout out “Leave me alone,” he pushed it open and stepped inside the chaos that was Lissa’s room. Not quite a pigsty, it was still messy as hell. She was flopped on her bed, cell phone to her ear.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” she said, placing a hand over the receiver.
“Dad. No. Not now.”
“Yep, Lissa, now. Hang up.”
She shook her head and he heard a voice, a male voice, saying something.
“Either you hang it up or I will.”
“I’m serious.” He took a step forward.
“I’ll call you back,” she said quickly. “In a few minutes.” Then she hung up. Turning rebellious eyes up at him she said, “Satisfied?”
“Oh…shit. You don’t even live here anymore.”
“I’m working on that. Clean up your language.”
“It’s just words, Dad.” She looked about to let fly with a blue streak of four-letter words, then caught his expression and changed her mind. “And don’t ‘work on it’ to move back in. Mom and me, we don’t need you.”
“Really?” He folded his arms over his chest. “Tell me about it.”
“I don’t need to tell you anything. You just want to come back here so you can go to bed with Mom.” She made an “ick” face as if the picture of her parents sleeping together was the most revolting image she could imagine.
“Your mother’s my wife,” he said, crossing the room, grabbing her desk chair, flipping it around, and sitting on it backward.
“Not for long.”
“You think?” He smiled. “We’ll see.”
She shook her head. “Don’t you get it? Mom doesn’t love you anymore.”
That statement stung, but he ignored it. “Let’s turn this around, okay? I didn’t have time to pick up anything on the way, so let’s go out for a burger. You can tell me all about your life then.”
She looked at him as if he’d suggested she eat banana slugs.
“Come on, Lissa. It won’t be so bad.”
“I’m…I’m a vegetarian.”
She made a face and shrugged. “A while.”
“Great. I know a place where they make veggie burgers out of tofu or something.” He picked up her flip-flops and tossed them onto the bed. “Let’s go.”
Kristen tried to ignore her case of nerves, but as she drove to the restaurant she couldn’t forget the night of the last reunion meeting and the fact that someone had followed her to St. Elizabeth’s afterward. Had it been one of the women on the committee? Or someone who had waited in the parking lot, then followed her Honda as she’d left? Was it the person who had stolen the picture of Jake and her from the attic where it had been hidden for years, or someone else?
The same old questions hounded her and she couldn’t help but check her rearview mirror and the surrounding traffic as she drove through the congested streets of Beaverton. Twice she thought she noticed a vehicle lagging back, visible in her sideview mirror, but the first time it was a truck with an older man in a baseball cap who had pulled into a convenience store, and the second time it was a dark SUV that passed her, the driver, a soccer-mom type, not giving her a second glance.
“You’re paranoid,” she told herself as she pulled into Ricardo’s lot. She spied Aurora’s Subaru wagon in a parking space near the front door and noted several other vehicles that could be reunion committee members’ cars. She didn’t see Haylie Swanson’s BMW.
Grabbing her computer and purse, Kristen locked the car and headed inside. Once again, the tangy garlic-laden scents emanating from the hidden kitchen made Kristen’s stomach growl. Somehow, she’d missed lunch and hadn’t noticed how hungry she was until this minute.
The restaurant was quieter than it had been the previous time they’d met. There were plenty of people seated at the tables, but the decibel level was lower due to the fact there was no preteen basketball party in progress.
Kristen waved a hello to Aurora. Most, if not all, of the other usual suspects from St. Lizzy’s had shown up. Only Haylie appeared to be missing, replaced by another woman Kristen recognized as Laura Triant, the girl who had married Chad Belmont from Western Catholic. Kristen was relieved. She didn’t want a replay of the last meeting’s scene. Hopefully Laura was a lot more stable than Haylie.
Three tables had been pushed together in a corner close to the bar. Once again notes, yearbooks, pictures, and printouts were scattered among bottles of wine and frosty mugs of beer or cola. Mandy, DeLynn, Bella, Aurora, and Martina were seated around one end of the working surface, leaving Laura Triant Belmont and April on the opposite side.
“Welcome, El Presidente,” Aurora greeted her.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“Nah…the rest of us are early.”
“Sure.” A lie. To make her feel better. She slid into an empty chair next to DeLynn and across from April. “Are we all here, or are we waiting for Haylie?”
“She’s not coming. I called,” Aurora said. “Left a couple of voice messages. She never called back.”
“Which is just as well, considering last time,” Bella pointed out. “For as long as she lives, she’s going to blame Jake for Ian’s death.” She shook her head, her hair as dark as her brother’s had been. In high school, she’d looked enough like Jake that people had thought they were twins, especially those who hadn’t realized Bella had skipped a grade in elementary school.
“She can find us, she has all our numbers,” Martina added, her dark eyes sober. “I’m with Bella. Haylie’s more trouble than she’s worth.”
“That’s not exactly what I meant.” Bella, slightly irritated, picked up her glass of wine.
“Sure it is. It’s what we’re all thinking…Oh, well, doesn’t matter. Let’s get on with it,” Martina said. “Kristen, you remember Laura? I told you she’s married to Chad Belmont?”
“Hi, and welcome to the committee.”
“Glad to be here,” Laura said. “We were just discussing the boys from Western. Martina and I see a lot of them.”
The conversation took off from there as they discussed some of the Western grads. Laura had brought a yearbook that caused lots of chuckles, sly glances, and comments like, “I so had a crush on him!” or “He was a friend of my brother. I couldn’t wait for him to come over and play basketball.” Or “Geez, he was always a nerd in high school, always hitting on me. I heard he made a fortune with some dot-com company.”
For twenty minutes they discussed the “boys” from Western.
Just as they had about every waking moment twenty years earlier.
“Chad’s all over this reunion,” Laura said, sipping from a mug of beer. “One hundred percent!” She was still as freckled as ever, but a few streaks of gray had infiltrated her once-vibrant red hair. “He and some of his friends, including Craig,” she added, mentioning Martina’s husband, “are already starting to contact classmates.”
Martina nodded as she sipped what appeared to be a Diet Coke. “Craig’s already put out the word on the Internet. I think they’ve got over forty guys signed up already.”
“I say bring ’ em on.” April ’s eyes were full of interest at the prospect of being with “the guys.” She’d been married twice before and made no bones about the fact that she was “lookin’ for number three.”
Aurora pointed to the wine and beer on the table. “Help yourself. It’s light beer. And Merlot. That pizza’s cheese and pepperoni, and this one”-she indicated the large tray in front of Martina-“is veggie delight. If you want something from the salad bar or a soda, you’re on your own.”
“A beer sounds like heaven,” Kristen said as she reached for the half-full pitcher and an empty mug. “Bring me up to speed.”
They did. Laughing, talking, eating, and drinking, they laid out how the event would take place. Bella had great ideas for decorations and was proceeding on ordering them, and DeLynn had managed to get most of the classmates’ addresses and was working on the final three.
“Does anyone have any idea about Leslie Bonaventure, or Karleen Signatore, or Bette Lablonsky?” DeLynn checked the spreadsheet she’d printed out. “I’m missing about twenty-six alumnae, but I have leads on all but those three. Here’s the list.” She passed copies around the table.
“I think I heard Bette’s family moved to Chicago,” Bella said around a bite of pepperoni, “but don’t quote me on that.”
“Karleen has an aunt in Oregon City, or did,” Martina put in. “I’ll see if I have that address.”
DeLynn made notes on her spreadsheet. “I also got in contact with Darla Campbell’s parents. She died last year in a boating accident, and I don’t think Selma Ortega will come. Not only was her husband killed last year in the war, she’s battling ovarian cancer. She has to wait and see how she feels.”
There were murmurs of shock and concern from the rest of the committee. It was sad and oddly strange to learn of their classmates’ troubles and deaths.
DeLynn tapped her pencil on the table. “Selma has two kids and Darla a son. I think the committee should set up some kind of donation fund or something, y’know, as well as acknowledging them at the event.”
Everyone agreed with the idea.
“Well, on that somber note,” April said, “I think we should move on. Here’s the menu and bid from the caterer. It’s pretty expensive, but the best I could come up with. You’ll see that I got a bid with and without dessert.” She passed her sheets around. “I was hoping Kristen’s mom might be able to help in that area. It could save us some money if we got a deal on the pastry.”
“From my mom?” Kristen snorted as she picked up a piece of vegetarian pizza. “She was never big on giving special price breaks, and she sold Sweet Nothings a few years ago.”
“But she still has connections in the industry.”
“I can ask,” Kristen said dubiously. “But don’t count on it.”
“Okay,” Aurora said. “What about the advertising? Can you run ads for the reunion at the paper and on the Internet? Maybe we can find those last missing souls.”
They talked a while more, organizing, and eventually Aurora handed Kristen a stack of nearly a hundred invitations. “These are ready to go. They’re already stuffed with registration forms, return envelopes, and questionnaires. All you have to do is add a personal note-slash-invitation as head of the committee and maybe include DeLynn’s list of the people we can’t find, so that if anyone knows where a missing alum is, they can contact us.”
“I think you should write the letter,” Kristen teased, though she took the boxes of invitations. “Honestly, Aurora, you’ve done the work on this.”
Aurora waved a dismissive hand. “Give me some credit in the letter and maybe in the little pamphlet that we hand out at the reunion. Just don’t make me the person everyone turns to if there’s a problem. That’d be you, Kristen.”
Kristen didn’t want to think about what those problems could possibly be. It was time she told them about what had already happened to her, but she hardly knew how to broach the subject.
Then DeLynn checked her watch and sighed. “Got to go. The baby-sitter can only stay until nine-thirty.”
Drawing a breath, Kristen plunged in. “There’s something else I wanted to talk about.” The committee members turned interested faces her way. “Something I want all of you to see.” Unsnapping her briefcase, Kristen reluctantly pulled out the marred photograph.
Everyone at the table stared at the faded, red-marked photo.
“What is this?” DeLynn asked.
“Someone left it in my car, the night after the last reunion meeting.”
“What?” Aurora was stunned. “They left it here?”
“No.” As succinctly as possible, Kristen relayed her story.
“Why did you go to the school? The maze?” Bella asked, her eyes trained on the photograph of her brother.
“I don’t know. It was stupid.”
“This is beyond creepy,” Laura said.
DeLynn agreed. “Who would do this?”
“I think someone followed me,” Kristen admitted. “No one knew I would be there. I didn’t plan to go. I can’t even explain why I felt compelled to drive to the school and walk through the maze.”
“You should have your head examined,” Martina muttered as she looked away from the photograph. “Where did this picture come from?”
“It might have been stolen from my house,” Kristen said with a grimace. “I checked my attic. It’s missing. Just the paper folder that it came in was left.”
“You think someone was in your house?” DeLynn whispered. She’d forgotten all about her baby-sitter.
“How else would they get the picture?”
“From the photographer?” Aurora asked.
“He’s out of business. I checked.”
“We have a picture like that,” Bella said and swallowed hard. “Or at least we did.” She bit her lip. “I, um, I haven’t seen it in a while. But Jake paid for the picture and it was sent to our house, you know, several weeks after…after he died. My mom fell into a million pieces all over again.” She looked up at Kristen. “I’ll check with my folks. See if they still have it.”
“I don’t like this,” April murmured, rubbing her arms as if suddenly chilled.
“Whoever left the picture also left me an audio tape…it’s from the dance.” Kristen glanced at Bella. “Look, I’m sorry, this is painful for us all, but I thought you should know. The tape has people’s conversations and then…well, it ends with a horrible scream. I think Lindsay’s.”
“Okay, this is sick!” Aurora rubbed her temples and stared at the picture lying between the half-drunk mugs of beer. “Someone’s turned complete psycho. Have you…did you talk to the police?”
“Why the hell not?” DeLynn demanded.
“Because I thought it might just be a prank.”
“A prank.” Her condemning tone conveyed her disbelief. “Kristen, this is malicious, cold, and potentially dangerous.” She glanced at her watch and muttered, “Damn. I’ve really got to go.” She pointed a finger at the picture. “Take that and the tape and call the damned police. That’s what they’re for.” Scooping up her purse, she was out the door.
“She’s right,” Laura said. “You have to take this to the police. Maybe they can pull fingerprints off the cassette or listen to it and piece together different voices…a time line. Some of us might remember who was around when those conversations were taped.”
“It’s been twenty years.”
“My guess?” April said. “Haylie’s behind it. She had that meltdown. Still blames Jake for Ian Powers’s death. And she didn’t show up tonight. I’ll bet she’s guilty as sin.”
Aurora shuddered. “Let’s not start pointing fingers, but DeLynn’s right, Kris. You have to talk to the police.”
The killer watched as cars rolled out of the parking lot. As each woman left the meeting, she looked over her shoulder, then peered inside her car to make sure it was empty. They were all paranoid the bogeyman was hiding inside, and after a cursory search they drove off with cell phones pressed to their ears, doors locked, tires chirping as they hit the gas.
Just you wait, she thought, watching from deep within her vehicle, a dark SUV with tinted windows. She smiled. It was almost delicious.
She was parked near a stand of pines that rimmed the lot, and no one noticed her vehicle wedged between a pickup and a sedan. They were too busy getting away.
Because they were scared.
Because Kristen Daniels had told them about the picture and the tape.
They’d all been shocked, and she’d been able to witness their horrified expressions.
Everyone was edgy.
Nerves strung tight.
Humming “Dancing in the Dark,” the old Bruce Springsteen song that was playing the night Jake was killed, she smiled and put her Blazer into gear.
Things were about to get worse. A whole lot worse.
No one followed her. She watched, checking her rearview mirror, her hands gripped tight on the steering wheel, but the drive was uneventful until she pulled into her driveway and found Ross’s truck parked on the street.
Her heart did a stupid little jump and she looked in the mirror one more time to check her appearance. “Oh, get over yourself,” she muttered. “It’s Ross. Ross. The man you’re divorcing. Remember?”
But the woman in the mirror didn’t seem convinced.
She walked through the garage to the kitchen and found Ross sprawled on the leather couch in the family room, his shoes kicked off, a fire lit, the television tuned to a sports update show. The cat was curled on the back of the couch, her tail wrapped around her tawny body.
Ross twisted his head as she walked in and flashed that incredible, roguish grin of his again. “Hi, honey, you’re home!” he teased, and her heart lurched again.
Don’t fall for it. This is just an act.
“Comfy?” she asked, dropping her bag and laptop onto the table as the cat opened her eyes, yawned, then settled back to sleep.
He patted the cushion next to him. “I could be better.” His voice was deep. Sexy. Oh, she’d heard it a thousand times in the first five or six years of their marriage-the happy years. “Come on over and take a load off.”
She was tempted. “Nah. Too much to do.”
He cocked an eyebrow and she noticed that not only the collar button but a few more had come undone. His sleeves were rolled over forearms that were impossibly tanned considering the time of year. “I believe that was my line. At least you accused me of it, oh, about a dozen times a day.”
“Was I really such a nag?” she asked, walking toward him. Marmalade, disturbed by all the commotion, hopped off the couch and sought solace under the kitchen table with an accusatory meow.
“You are so not making points with me,” she said. Reluctantly, knowing inside she wanted to far too much, she took a seat on the ottoman, facing him.
His eyes assessed her, causing a little frisson of awareness to slide down her spine. “How ’bout I get you a drink. Gin and tonic? Glass of Chardonnay?”
“How can you be so damned sure of yourself?”
“Years of practice.” Again he thumped the spot beside him in invitation. “Come on, Kris. What’ve you got to lose?”
“And my guess is she knows all about us. It won’t hurt if she walks out of her room and finds us together.”
Kristen arched a dubious brow.
Ross continued in a conversational tone. “We are her parents and we own this house. Together. I think she understands the facts of life. And just in case she doesn’t, I told her about them tonight over tofu burgers and French fries that had been guaranteed not to be fried in anything resembling animal fat.”
“Oh, that’s right…she’s a vegetarian.”
“Nope. I think she upped her commitment to the cause. Now she’s a vegan.”
“She was last year, too. It lasted a couple of weeks.”
He snorted in amusement. Kristen smiled back and quit fighting him. Gave up the battle with herself. Sliding onto the couch, she tried not to melt against him when his arm pulled her close and her head nestled so naturally into the crook of his neck. “So, how was it? Are you hot on the trail of those long-lost classmates?”
His arm felt right around her and the whiff of his cologne reminded her of how easily she could respond to him. “I suppose.”
“Don’t they know they can’t escape? That you’re like a bloodhound when you’re tracking something?”
“Actually, DeLynn Vaughn, er, Simms, is in charge of locating everyone, and she’s a lot better at it than I am.”
“If you say so.”
“Mmm.” She frowned and decided to tell him about the rest of the meeting. In for a penny…“I showed everyone at the meeting the picture that was left on my car and told them about the tape.”
She felt him tense a bit, the muscles surrounding her tightening. “And?”
“And everyone agrees with you, that I should call the police.”
“Good. And have you?”
“First thing in the morning. I promise.”
He lifted her chin with one finger and forced her to look him straight in the eyes. “I’m going to hold you to it, Kris. This is important. You don’t know what kind of a nutcase you’ve got running around. A prankster who’s getting his rocks off by scaring the crap out of you or a real psycho, like the person who killed Jake Marcott.”
Kristen grimaced. Ross had always accused her of never being able to get over Jake’s death, of feeling guilty that the boy she’d loved had died, of never letting go of him. He’d also blamed Kristen’s unrequited dreams and fantasies about a boy who had become a ghost for ruining their marriage.
Part of his accusations were true. No doubt about it.
She tried to pull away from him, but he held her fast. “I’m serious. This isn’t a random act, and we both know it. Whoever decided to mess with your car planned it. Stole the picture. Either audiotaped the murder years before or stole the tape from someone who did, someone who never mentioned it or gave the tape to the police.” Eyebrows drawn in concentration, he added, “It’s no coincidence that this is happening now, when you’re planning the reunion. Someone’s been waiting for just this moment.”
“You don’t know that.”
Ross slowly released her, but his tone was demanding. “You think it was random? That whoever did this was just up at the school, waiting for you to walk into that damned maze?”
“Of course not,” she admitted.
“I don’t like it,” Ross said, frowning into the fire.
“Neither do I.”
“I think it would be best if I stuck around.”
Her gaze, which had drifted toward Marmalade, flew to his face. “What do you mean? Like…stay here? Overnight?”
The fire hissed and crackled as he asked, “Would that be so bad?”
“We’re supposed to be separated…you can’t just…move back in.” She shook her head though a part of her wanted it badly enough to scare her inside. She shot to her feet. “Look, Ross, nothing’s really changed.”
“Like hell. I’ve changed. You’ve changed.”
“Don’t…” She struggled to keep a grip on things even though with each passing day she’d begun to believe that he’d never cheated on her. That she’d imagined that part because he’d lost interest in her. In their family. That was the stone-cold truth. “It didn’t work before. I don’t think it’ll work now.”
“So kick me out.”
“And I’m not budging.”
She couldn’t believe his gall. “We had an agreement.”
“An arrangement. I didn’t really agree to anything. I was just giving you the space to figure things out. But I’m through with that.” To emphasize his point, he pulled the quilt from the back of the couch and tossed it over his legs. Gray eyes dared her to argue.
Kristen glanced at the door to Lissa’s room and lowered her voice. “Really, Ross, you can’t stay here.”
“Sure I can. Just watch.”
“You son of a bitch,” she said on a note of wonder. He was really pushing this.
“Now, there’s the woman I love. I wondered when she’d surface.”
“What’re you planning to tell Lissa?”
“How about ‘Daddy’s home’?”
“Fine. If you want to camp out in the family room and make some kind of macho statement, have at it. You can explain it to Lissa tomorrow.”
“Sweet dreams,” he called after her as she strode into their bedroom and slammed the door.
It was all Ross could do not to chase after her, kiss her for all she was worth, toss her onto the bed, and tumble after her. He knew their lovemaking would be searing. Intense. Erotic.
It always had been.
Even when they’d made light of it and laughed or teased, the physical wanting and desire had always been white hot.
Lying on the couch, watching the fire die, hearing a sportscaster drone on and on about the NBA, he let his mind wander back to the time when they hadn’t been able to get enough of each other; when a simple brushing of the elbows, or naughty little glance, or upturned corner of a mouth had started a sensual foreplay process that might have lasted fifteen minutes or more likely hours, touching, kissing, caressing.
They had experimented with positions and places; in fact-he glanced around the house-there hadn’t been a room they hadn’t christened in one way or another before they’d moved here permanently. Closing his eyes, he remembered the feel of her tongue sliding down the cords of his neck and lower, over his shoulders and down his abdomen. She would often place her teeth and tongue around one of his nipples before moving slowly, with sweet agony, downward.
His blood heated and even now, alone, thinking of her, his groin tightened and his damned cock grew hard.
He tried to shift his thoughts from her, but it was too late.
They hadn’t been able to get enough of each other and if there had been any problems, they had seemed small at the time. True, he’d known from the get-go that she hadn’t resolved her feelings for the boy who had died, but Ross had thought with the passage of time, Jake Marcott’s ghost would be laid to rest, that eventually Kristen would come to terms with what had happened that night.
He’d been proved wrong.
Jake had always been there.
Standing between them, and in Ross’s mind’s eye, the dark-haired boy had been laughing at Ross’s naïvete. He’d even shown up in some of Ross’s dreams, this high-school kid he’d never even met! And always, without fail, Jake was the one walking out of the damned maze with Kristen, and Ross was left shackled to the tree, the greenery closing in on him, Kristen’s voice fading in the distance.
He’d always been stark naked in the nightmare, while Jake was in a black tux and Kristen in a differing array of clothing; sometimes in a long, sexy black gown, other times in nothing more than a red teddy and high heels.
He’d always woken up hot, horny, and thankful that Kristen was beside him, sleeping soundly.
So why had he let it slip away? Why let the nightmares of Jake Marcott push him further from her? When had his work, his goddamned work, become more important than his wife and daughter?
They had just slowly grown apart and they’d let it go too far until questions, doubts, and fears had overtaken love and trust.
But no more.
Whether Kristen liked it or not, he was back. And horny as hell.
So the husband is there.
That was an unexpected wrinkle.
The killer, having parked two streets over, had carefully slunk through the shadows of the tall firs that partially covered the hillsides of this sparsely occupied neighborhood. With houses on partial acres, hidden away, and the few houses close to the road built on steep, forested hillsides, traffic had been light, nearly nonexistent, as she’d neared the Delmonico home at the end of the dead-end street. She’d had to hide only twice when a car had passed.
Now, across the street as she viewed Kristen’s home, the killer stared at the big black pickup belonging to Ross Delmonico. She didn’t like the fact that Delmonico was in the picture again. He could screw up her plans. Big time. And she had waited so long. So damned long.
Stay the course.
You’ve come too far to let this little snag affect you.
She let out her breath, the warm air from her lungs expelling in a streaming fog as it hit the cold night.
Staring at the house, she reached into her pocket, her fingers closing over the key deep inside, a key she’d made from the one Kristen had hidden on a nail tucked under the eaves of the porch, the one she left for the kid who was always forgetting hers.
They’d never known it was missing. The killer had located it one morning after everyone had left for the day and put it back it before anyone had returned. Easy deal. She’d done the same with all the houses she’d needed to enter. Most people weren’t that clever when hiding their spare.
Slowly, caressingly, she rubbed her thumb and index finger over the cold metal, pressing hard over the unique, sharp little teeth that were fashioned and cut to ensure the locks on Kristen Daniels’s doors would open.
But the husband was a problem.
As was the kid.
Not insurmountable. You can handle them. You just have to be careful and wait for the precise moment to strike. You can do it. You won’t fail.
Through the slats of the blinds, she saw a fire glowing, warm and bright, flickering flames reflecting on the windows, smoke curling into the thick, dark night. Every once in a while she’d catch a glimpse of a silhouette moving in front of the window and her gut would tighten.
Don’t let anyone see you, she reminded herself.
What the hell was the husband doing there?
The light in Kristen’s bedroom snapped on, and though the killer could not see through the closed shutters, she imagined what was happening in that room. With the husband. She imagined the mating, that big man mounting Kristen in the missionary position, or maybe from behind. He would be grunting in pleasure, she gasping, maybe holding on to the rails of her headboard, and there would be the slap, slap, slap of flesh meeting flesh, hotter and faster as the smell of sweat and sex overcame the scents of candles and fire.
Her lower abdomen tightened.
And need started to pulse through her. Did she dare peek through the blinds to watch their rutting? Spy Kristen in the throes of passion, knowing she would be pretending the man thrusting himself into her, making her pant and her blood run like lava, wasn’t Ross Delmonico at all, but Jake Marcott?
“Whore,” the killer whispered. They were all whores. For Jake.
Her jaw was so tight it hurt.
Tears burned behind her eyes.
Bile rose up her throat.
She clasped the key so hard it cut through her skin, and she might not have noticed the pain except a dog started barking, breaking into her obsessive fantasy.
A big dog, from the sounds of it.
Not a little yapper.
And not penned.
Wrenching her gaze from the house, she narrowed her eyes into the frigid darkness and focused down the hill toward the corner where the main road split and this offshoot continued up the hill. There was only one streetlight between Kristen’s house and that fork.
She saw the bobbing beam of a flashlight.
Her heart nearly stopped.
Someone was walking their damned dog!
Blocking her way out.
Her ears strained and she heard the pound of footsteps.
She racewalked in the other direction, toward the dead end, where no house could be built as the lot was essentially little more than a sheer cliff.
She had to get away before she was seen!
Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap! A brisk tempo of running shoes hitting pavement.
Oh, hell, the guy wasn’t walking his dog. He was running. Even though it was almost midnight. The runner and dog reached the lamp post with its eerie pool of bluish light. The man wasn’t all that big, but the beast-some kind of Doberman/Rottweiler mix-was huge. Massive. Drooling.
The killer took one final glance at Kristen’s house and froze.
There, staring straight at her, peering through the damned bedroom window, was Kristen Daniels Delmonico.
Kristen’s hand stopped in midair. The blind she had been adjusting was partially open as she squinted through the window past the shrubbery of her yard, and at the far side of the street she saw movement. A blur.
She sucked in her breath.
What was it?
Was it her imagination, or was someone standing beneath the drooping boughs of the ancient Douglas fir trees that stood like giant sentinels in the vacant lot?
You’re seeing things, she told herself, but her heart was jackhammering, her breath caught in her lungs. Don’t do this, Kristen. Don’t let your imagination run away with you. It’s probably just a deer-or shadows.
Another movement outside. A dark figure starting to make tracks.
“Oh, God.” She switched off the bedside lamp, causing the room to go dark, cutting the reflection and allowing her eyes to adjust so she could see more clearly.
There it was again, that murky blur.
Someone running or walking quickly toward the dead end.
Without thinking, Kristen flew out of the bedroom, down the hallway to the kitchen.
Ross was lying on the couch.
“Someone’s outside,” she said, searching in the drawer for her flashlight. “Across the street. Watching the place. They took off toward the end of the street when they saw me looking outside.”
“What?” He was instantly up, reaching for his shoes. “What do you mean? Who?”
“I don’t know. Just that someone’s out there. Someone who shouldn’t be,” she said, and couldn’t keep the undercurrent of panic from her voice.
“Then stay inside. I’ll check it out.” He was halfway to the kitchen.
“I’ll come with you.”
“No way.” His voice was firm. “It’s probably nothing, but on the off chance it’s trouble, you stay with Lissa. I’ll yell if I need you to call 911.”
“No, Ross, I’ve got to show you where I saw-”
He grabbed her by the arms. “Stop it! I’m going out there. You’re staying here. With our daughter. End of story!” He scooped the kitchen phone’s handset from its cradle and slapped it into her hand. “If I need help, I’ll yell. Lock the door behind me.” He was outside, letting in a wave of wintry air before she could say another word. She twisted the dead bolt and stared through the kitchen window toward the street, but Ross had already disappeared into the shadows.
Lissa’s door opened and she stepped into the hallway. “What’s going on? You were shouting. Is…is Dad still here?” Wearing faded jeans and a short T-shirt, she looked about five years younger than her age. Kristen couldn’t resist hugging her close, startling her.
“Yes, Lissa, your father’s here, and he’s going to stay overnight.” Her daughter opened her mouth as if to protest, but Kristen cut her off. “It’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing, so please do not, I mean, do not give me one second’s grief about it.”
“Geez,” Lissa said, but she didn’t argue further as she scanned the kitchen and family room. “So, what’s going on? Where’s Dad now?”
“Outside. I thought I saw someone across the street and…well, Dad’s checking it out.”
“You saw someone doing what?”
“I don’t know. Lurking.”
“Oh.” Lissa hesitated, ran a hand through her hair, then admitted, “It was probably Zeke.”
Gnawing on a corner of her lip, Lissa shook her head as if silently arguing with herself.
“I, um, sorta told him to come over.”
“But…it’s after midnight. And why wouldn’t he just come in the door and-” The light in her mind suddenly dawned, with a painful, intense brilliance she’d tried to ignore. “You were going to sneak him into the house?”
Lissa lifted a shoulder. As if it were no big deal. “Just for a little while. We were just going to hang out.”
“Melissa Renee Delmonico, that is the absolute worst idea I’ve ever heard of! You can’t sneak Zeke or any boy, or anyone for that matter, into the house. You know that.”
For once Lissa didn’t roll her eyes, just stared at the door as Ross returned. Alone. He snapped off the flashlight. His face was set and hard, the lines near the sides of his mouth more pronounced.
“Zeke’s not with you?” Kristen asked.
“No…why would he be? The only person outside was a guy jogging with his dog. No one else.”
“A jogger?” No way!
“With a flashlight and dog. A big dog.”
Kristen shook her head. “The person I saw didn’t have a flashlight. I’m telling you”-she slid a glance at her daughter, and though she didn’t want to frighten Lissa, she figured everyone in the family needed to know what they were dealing with-“someone was lurking outside, across the street. Not moving until they saw me looking through the blinds. This wasn’t a jogger or someone walking his dog.”
Ross’s eyes were dark, his expression even more severe. He set his flashlight on the kitchen counter, leaned a hip against the top of the cupboards, and folded his arms over his chest. His gaze was riveted on his daughter. “Why did you think it might be Zeke?”
Lissa blinked hard, then started to turn as if heading for her room.
“Hold it right there. Answer me. What’s going on?” Ross demanded.
Lissa’s shoulders stiffened. She sniffed loudly, then finally turned. Her lower lip began to quiver, though she fought breaking down completely. “Nothing. Nothing’s going on, Dad, and it’s all your fault. Zeke…Zeke doesn’t like it that you’re hanging out and…and I told him to come over. Yeah, that’s right, I know what time it is,” she added when Ross glanced at his watch. “Anyway, he was going to come in through my window and-”
“I was going to sneak him in, but it doesn’t matter anyway because I guess he stood me up. Again.” She swiped the back of her hand under her nose and added acrimoniously, “Happy now?”
Before Ross could respond, Kristen said, “Don’t bother with the lecture. Melissa and I have just had it. She knows that she made a mistake, but”-she switched her attention to her daughter-“if this is the way he treats you-”
“Save it, Mom.” Lissa glared at her parents.
Ross said, “Call him.”
The set of his jaw brooked no argument. “Find out if Zeke was here. Maybe your mom and I scared him off.”
“I don’t want to-”
“Call that little creep right now, or I will.”
“Damn it, Dad, don’t do this!”
“Now,” he ordered, though his voice wasn’t quite so harsh.
She hesitated, then whipped her phone from a pocket of her jeans. Turning her back to her parents, she hit speed dial, and standing in the hallway, had a quick call in hushed, mumbled tones. Her small shoulders were slumped, her head cocked, one shoulder braced on the wall.
“No one was out there, Kris,” Ross said as Lissa finished her short conversation and snapped her phone shut. When she turned to face them again, she was fighting tears. “It wasn’t him, okay?” She swiped at her red eyes and sniffed loudly.
She nodded, her jaw sliding to one side. Hesitating, she then cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. “I don’t think he’d bring someone else over here. He’s with Tara O’Riley. I heard her laughing.”
“Oh, honey.” Kristen’s heart cracked for her daughter.
“It’s okay,” Lissa said. “He’s a jerk.”
Ross stepped right into it. “You could do better anyway.”
“Then why’s he with Tara?” she spat, bristling as she threw her hands into the air. “What do you care, anyway?”
“Lissa,” Kristen warned, but her daughter’s volatile emotions erupted.
All her anger and shame had shifted to her father. “Mom says you’re moving back in. What’s up with that?”
“I said he was spending the night. That’s different from moving back,” Kristen reaffirmed.
“So this is just temporary?” Lissa asked, a trace of sarcasm still evident in her voice. “You move in, you move out, you move in again. Just like some kind of yo-yo dad. So who are you to give me any kind of advice?”
Kristen expected Ross to come unglued. To argue. To point out the difficulties of an adult relationship, to explain why both he and she had needed their space to sort things through. Instead his jaw worked, he glanced down at the floor for a second, rammed his hands deep into the pockets of his slacks, then nodded to himself before looking up and meeting his daughter’s angry, red, accusing gaze. His voice, when he spoke, was softer. More thoughtful. “I can’t give you advice. You’re right, Lissa.”
There was a beat of uncertain, uncomfortable silence when only the slow sizzle of the fire and quiet rumble of the refrigerator could be heard.
“But I am moving back in,” he said, holding Kristen’s gaze. “For good.”
Over the next few days Kristen learned how serious Ross had been. She hadn’t argued with him when he’d made his proclamation, because a part of her was thrilled to have him back. She wanted to give their marriage one more chance.
But she’d laid down some rules. Ross used the guest bedroom as his office and sleeping quarters for now. They chose a family counselor who would work with them as a couple, as well as with Lissa, to help them repair the rifts in their shattered little family. They both agreed to the changes, though Lissa dragged her heels to the first counseling session and thought the whole idea was “beyond lame.”
But it was a step forward…a step in the right direction.
As for the reunion for St. Elizabeth’s, Kristen did call the police about the tape and photo and a detective came by the office and took her statement, along with the “evidence.” Considering the more deadly, higher-profile crimes that were occurring in the city, Kristen didn’t hold out much hope that anything momentous would come of the investigation.
She managed to write a letter to the alumnae and stuff and seal all of the envelopes. Then, unfortunately, because of deadlines at work and her own complicated family situation, she forgot to take the damned things to the post office. They sat ready to be mailed on the kitchen table for two days before she finally remembered to haul them to the post office a week after the reunion meeting. Only when Ross had remarked about them and actually offered to take them himself did she realize they weren’t already in the post.
Ross was being on his best “family-comes-first” behavior, and though Kristen wanted to trust him, she was holding back. Everything was much too fragile. She thanked him for his offer but she dropped off the envelopes on her way to work the following morning, then caught up with Sabrina, who had decided, against her better judgment, to help her husband Gerard and Chad Belmont with the Western Catholic reunion that was the same weekend and dovetailing into the St. Elizabeth’s festivities.
“So I heard about the weird tape you got and that creepy picture,” Sabrina said, shuddering as she blew across the top of her caramel/mocha-nonfat-decaf-with-light-whipped cream latte she was sipping. She and Kristen were taking a break at the local coffee shop, seated inside the windows, watching clouds roll over the sky and pedestrians scurry past as the first few drops of rain began to splatter against the sidewalk. With a great rumble, a TriMet bus pulled out of the bus stop and eased into traffic heading east, toward the gray waters of the Willamette River and the Hawthorne Bridge.
“Did you talk to the police?”
“Mmm, but so far, they haven’t found anything.”
“It would be a great story for the Clarion. You could bring up Jake Marcott’s murder and then tell what happened to you. Get a little press and a nice byline.” She was only half kidding.
“No, thanks. The publicity just might be what whoever did this wants. It could make him frantic for more and more, and he could up the ante.”
“Or she,” Kristen agreed as they carried the rest of their drinks back to the office. Kristen finished a piece on school funding or lack of it, and near five, she made a phone call to Alabama-one she’d been putting off-where it was almost eight in the evening.
A woman picked up on the third ring. “Hello?”
“Rachel?” Kristen asked. “This is Kristen. Kristen Delmonico, but it was Daniels. From St. Elizabeth’s.”
“Kris? Daniels?” Rachel replied, clearly surprised. “Hi. It’s been years…Oh, I get it, you’re in charge of the reunion, aren’t you?” She laughed, and it was a sound that Kristen remembered well, one that caused a pang of regret to cut through her. How had she let so many years pass without trying to connect with her old friend? “Listen, if you’re trying to get me involved, forget it. You got drafted for the job, not this girl.” Again the soft laughter.
“I did call about the reunion,” Kristen admitted, “but I really wanted to talk to you. To catch up. Got a minute?”
They talked for nearly half an hour, filling in the gaps and laughing. Kristen told Rachel about her job at the Clarion, her husband and daughter, and Rachel revealed that she was divorced and working as a cop.
“I heard that much,” Kristen admitted. “That’s really one of the reasons I decided to call you today. I know your father worked on the Jake Marcott murder case.”
On the other end of the phone, Rachel sighed. “Oh, God, yes. Swear to God, the fact that Dad couldn’t solve that one drove him to an early grave.”
“So am I. For a lot of things,” Rachel admitted. “The Jake thing…horrible. For all of us.”
“You’re right, and it hasn’t gone away.”
“It never will,” Rachel thought aloud. “It really ticks me off that someone got away with murder.”
“Me, too, and I’m afraid whoever did it might be back.”
“What?” Rachel asked, a little more loudly.
“Either the murderer has returned or…someone’s getting off on messing with me, probably because of the reunion.” She explained everything that had happened, from the moment she felt someone might have been inside her house to the reunion committee, to feeling she was being watched. As Rachel listened, Kristen told her about driving to St. Elizabeth’s campus, walking through the maze, and receiving the “gift” of the picture and tape. She finished with, “The photographer is out of business and my picture, the one of Jake and me at the dance, is missing, though I don’t know for how long. It’s been years since I looked in that box in the attic.”
“What about the other people on the committee? Anyone else been harassed?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Then you were singled out because you’re in charge of the reunion, or because you went to the campus, or both,” Rachel surmised. “And you went to the police?”
“They weren’t all that interested. They took the tape and the photograph, but…really, they’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
“Not if this is really tied to Jake’s homicide,” Rachel said, and Kristen heard a rhythmic sound, as if Rachel were tapping the end of her pencil on something…just like she used to do when she was really thinking hard in Sister Clarice’s religion class twenty years earlier. Religion was one of the few classes Rachel, Lindsay, and Kristen had shared their senior year. “You know, Dad’s partner, Charlie Young, is still with the force, at least I think so. I’ll give him a call and find out what’s what.”
“I’d appreciate it,” Kristen said with feeling. “Well, we all would. Some of the girls-I mean women, we’re bona fide women now-would, too. They were a little freaked at the last committee meeting.”
“I’ll bet,” Rachel said. “I’ll get back to you.”
“Thanks.” Kristen hung up feeling slightly better. At least someone in law enforcement was interested, even if that interest came from nearly twenty-five hundred miles away.
Two days later, Kristen parked her car in the garage, then walked out to the mailbox to pick up the usual assortment of junk mail and bills. There, between an offer for a low-interest rate credit card and her Visa statement, was the invitation to the reunion. She was surprised because she hadn’t bothered to mail one to herself; she’d kept the prototype in her laptop and figured why waste the stamp. But there it was, big as life, addressed to Kristen Daniels Delmonico.
“What the devil?” she asked, as she walked into the house…the quiet house. “Lissa? Ross? I’m home,” she called as she headed down the hallway.
Odd…no one save for Marmalade was inside.
“What’s up with that?” she asked, and then remembered that her cell phone’s battery had run out after her long conversation with Rachel and she’d forgotten her charger. Now she fished the phone from her purse, snapped it into the charger on her desk, and as the phone went through its machinations of coming to life in a series of tinkling sounds, she found the letter opener in her desk drawer.
“You have seven new messages,” the computer voice informed her after she entered her password.
“Seven?” she repeated, holding the phone between her shoulder and ear to free up both hands so she could slice open the reunion packet. Marmalade hopped onto the desk and sat squarely in the pile of mail. “See how popular I am?”
The cat ignored her and began cleaning herself.
“Yeah, yeah. A lot you care.”
“First message,” the computer voice stated.
“Mom, it’s Lissa. I’m going over to Brandy’s house to work on a project for German. Either she’ll bring me home or I’ll call for a ride.”
That sounded safe enough. Kristen sincerely hoped that her daughter was where she said she’d be.
The machine announced, “Next message.”
“Hi, Kris. Hey, I’m running a little late, okay? But I’ll be home by seven. If you want, I can pick up something for dinner. Or we could go out, or whatever. Love you.”
Ross’s voice enveloped her. The words, uttered so quickly, touched her heart. Don’t go there, not yet, she warned herself as she pulled the thick, folded papers from the envelope.
“Is this your idea of some kind of joke?” Aurora demanded, her voice shaking. “I just got my invitation and surprise, surprise. What the hell were you thinking, Kris? Call me!”
Kristen stared at the phone, then opened the folded pages of her own invitation. Everything was as it should be except there was no letter of explanation signed by her, and her picture, the one she’d copied and cut from the yearbook to be used as part of her name tag at the reunion, had been altered. A harsh red line streaked across her face.
Her lips parted in shock. The threat was clear: someone intended to do her harm.
The phone beeped. A hang-up. Kristen dropped the invitation as if burned.
“Hi, Kristen, this is Bella. I got my invitation today and…well, it’s really, really weird. Some of the other girls on the committee got identical ones and I just don’t understand. Call me back.”
Kristen was shaking.
Aurora said coolly, “Okay, Kris, I talked to other people on the committee. It seems I’m not the only one who got the marked-up invitation. Bella and Mandy got one, too. But the rest of the committee, as far as I know, didn’t. What the hell’s going on? Call me!”
The next two calls were hang-ups, but caller ID indicated that Aurora had been dialing her every fifteen minutes.
Staring down at her own scratched senior photo, Kristen thought she might be sick. Who had done this and when? She thought of the invitations that had been left on her table for three days. Had they been tampered with?
Had someone been inside her house?
She nearly fell into the desk chair, her mouth dry, her heart pounding. She picked up the phone to dial Aurora when she stopped and listened.
Was she alone?
She thought hard, adrenaline kicking in. She didn’t have a weapon in the house. Neither she nor Ross owned any kind of gun. Quietly, she walked to the kitchen, reached for the butcher knife, but it was missing. Probably in the dishwasher. She didn’t have time to search and settled for a serrated, long-bladed knife from the drawer, then saw her reflection in the window-a pale ghostlike image of herself with a huge knife, just like one of those idiotic girls in a teen slasher movie.
Too bad. She needed something to protect herself. Moving softly, she walked from room to room, looking in closets, under beds, in any corner where someone could possibly hide. Her heartbeat thrummed in her ears as she searched every inch of the house. She’d nearly satisfied herself that she was alone when she remembered the attic.
Though the temperature was cool, sweat broke out on her back. Don’t be a fool, she told herself, but walked to the cord hanging from the ceiling anyway, pulling hard. The stairs unfolded into the hallway. The only other access to the attic was through a small window in a gable of the house, so Kristen told herself it was unlikely anyone would be inside. Still, her heart was thundering as she mounted the narrow steps, her muscles stretched tight.
She poked her head up slowly, only to eye level.
Kristen gasped and nearly fell off the ladder when she heard the telltale scratch of little claws scraping across the floor. A damned mouse. That was all.
Slowly she stepped upward and flipped on the lights. No one was hiding in the dusty shadows. No dark figure cowered in a corner. No deranged psycho was crouched behind the antique chest of drawers she’d never gotten around to refinishing.
No…everything was fine.
She was about to snap off the lights when her gaze swept over the stack of boxes of old textbooks and high-school paraphernalia she’d searched through.
One box was missing.
No. That couldn’t be right.
Again her heart began pounding crazily and a lightning chill raced down her spine. She gazed around wildly, her eyes searching one corner to the next. Surely she’d misplaced the damned thing…That was it. She’d tucked it somewhere else.
Frantically she scoured the room, not wanting to believe that someone had actually violated her privacy and sneaked into her home.
But the box that had contained all her memorabilia from St. Elizabeth’s was gone. She could still see the square shape in the dust where it had sat for so many years.
Who was this sicko? What did he want? What if he became violent? Images of Jake Marcott’s white-faced body flashed through her mind. She remembered his blood-soaked tux. Lindsay’s ruined dress. The pool of red oozing around the base of the oak tree and statue.
Backing toward the stairs, she could almost hear Lindsay’s ear-splitting, terrorized scream echoing through the rafters. She thought of the mutilated picture of Jake and her at the dance, the bloodcurdling scream on the tape, and now the marred invitations to the reunion.
Some sick pervert had been in her house.
Without breaking a window or knocking down a door.
Someone had a key, and now no one was safe.
Oh, God, Lissa! Was she really studying at a friend’s house, or had she been coerced into calling? Had she been kidnapped? No, no, no!
Fear storming through her, Kristen flew down the stairs.
Carrying the heavy box, the killer slipped into her private lair, deep in the locked, forgotten basement at St. Elizabeth’s. It had been a long, hard, but oh so rewarding day. Everything had gone perfectly. As planned.
She set the box on a desk, then, once the door was shut behind her, lit the kerosene lantern. In the flickering illumination she searched through the items in their cardboard container. Little trinkets, photos, even Kristen’s essays and diploma were in the box. She thrilled at the personal things, playing with the tassel from the mortarboard of the graduation cap and pulling out the long gold honor cords that Kristen, as a member of the Honor Society, had worn at graduation.
Then there were the pictures…in an album or left loose, photographs of the three best friends: Rachel, Lindsay, and Kristen, and, of course, all the snapshots of Jake Marcott.
She fingered those pictures and sighed.
What fools they all were. All of them. Even Kristen Daniels. Despite her soaring GPA and stratospheric SAT scores, she was an idiot.
They all were.
But they would soon learn.
Satisfied, she walked the few steps to the wall and worked the combination to locker number 118. Kristen’s locker. A click, then a groan as the metal door opened to reveal the few items already tucked inside. Now along with the French III textbook, awards, final report card, and her diary, she could display the pictures and little mementos that Kristen had treasured enough to keep all these long years.
A thrill ran down through her as she draped the faded honor cords over the jacket hook. They hung like a woman’s thinning blond braids.
What a joke.
“Fool, fool, fool,” she whispered happily to herself. Carefully she stacked, pasted, and glued items inside the locker. When she was finished, she admired her work, then took out the final item from the box:
The butcher knife she’d stolen from Kristen’s kitchen.
A serious stroke of genius, she thought, staring at the blade and seeing her own distorted reflection in the shiny steel.
“Tomorrow,” she told herself, shivering with anticipation as she imagined the moment when one of St. Elizabeth’s graduates would give up her miserable, useless, whoring life.
She pricked her thumb with the tip of the blade and saw a drop of red blood gather in the small cut.
Oh, yes, she thought, smiling coldly. Oh, yes.
Kristen picked up her cell and speed dialed Lissa, only to be connected to her daughter’s voicemail. No, honey, oh, no, no, no. She left a message for Melissa to call home immediately. Frantic, she punched in the number again only to be directed to the voicemail box once more. With an effort she forced her shaking fingers to text a simple message: Call home. URGENT!
For the first time in history Kristen hoped her daughter’s cell phone was off or that Lissa was screening her calls. She didn’t waste a single moment as she located the high-school directory of students and began flipping through the pages for Brandy’s number. Brandy…Brandy…Parker…no, Brandy Peters…no, oh, what the hell was that girl’s name? She found the page with the Ps, ran her finger down the page until she saw Brandy Porter. That was it. She was dialing the number frantically when she saw Ross’s truck roll into the driveway.
“Hello?” a girl’s voice answered on the other end of the line.
“Is this Brandy?” Kristen asked in a rush, then didn’t let the girl respond. “I’m looking for Lissa, er, Melissa Delmonico. I’m her mother.”
“Oh…she, uh, left.”
“Her boyfriend picked her up?”
“Her boyfriend? What boyfriend?” Kristen demanded, in a full-blown panic. “Zeke?”
“When did they leave?”
“Uh…I dunno…maybe fifteen minutes ago?”
Ross walked through the back door and Kristen sent him a look that warned him not to say a word. He had two sacks of groceries that he set on the table.
“Were they coming straight home?” Kristen asked, the girl’s vagueness making her want to tear out her hair.
“Okay, thanks.” She hung up, scared and frustrated.
“Lissa’s with Zeke again?” Ross’s voice was steel.
Kristen nodded, her mind racing.
He swore roundly. “How do you knock some sense into that kid?”
“Ross, there’s something else going on here. I think someone broke into the house. Someone who had a key.”
Quickly, she outlined what had happened since she’d returned from work. Ross’s expression turned grim, the veins in his neck stood out, and a small tic started at his temple as she handed him the doctored invitation that someone had sent her. She also told him about Aurora’s and Bella’s calls. “I haven’t called either one back yet, but I can’t concentrate on that when Lissa is…Oh, God, is that her?” She ran from the den to the kitchen where, through the window, she saw the high beams of an SUV splash against the rear of Ross’s truck.
Relief flooded through her as she spied Lissa climbing out of the passenger side, shouting something Kristen couldn’t hear, then slamming the door of the SUV. Lissa turned and stormed in through the garage, and the vehicle took off with a roar.
“Prick!” Lissa said as she stepped through the door. “Lying, cheating, useless prick!” She caught sight of her mother as she slammed the door and her face reddened. “Sorry. I was talking about Zeke.”
“You were supposed to call me,” Kristen said, so grateful to see her daughter alive and safe that she really didn’t care if Satan himself had given Lissa a ride home. “Let’s not argue about it now.”
“Did you ever give Zeke a key to this house?” Ross asked.
“What? No.” She was shaking her head as she walked to the refrigerator and opened the door.
“Uh-uh. There’s nothing to eat.” She grabbed a bottle of water and cracked it open. “Are we gonna have dinner?”
“Soon,” Kristen said. “Now, Lissa, I think someone might have been in the house and taken some things.”
“A box from the attic.”
She looked from one parent to the other. “This is a joke, right? Who would come in here and steal some of that junk?”
“I don’t know,” Kristen said. “But someone. Dad’s going to bring you up to speed while the two of you cook dinner.”
Kristen ignored the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding look on Melissa’s face. “I’ve got some work to do, so you guys whip up something spectacular and then we’ll discuss what we’re going to do.”
“What we’re going to do?” Lissa repeated suspiciously. “What does that mean?”
“We’ll probably call the police.”
“Really,” Ross said as he began unloading a couple of grocery bags. “Tell you what, since you and I are on for dinner, I’ll dial the phone and you order the pizza.”
Kristen left them to argue the merits of pepperoni versus vegetarian and headed to the den. Her cell phone had died on her again, so she replugged it into the charger and sat at her desk. Bracing herself, she punched out Aurora’s number on the landline. Aurora answered on the second ring.
“Hi. It’s Kris. I got your messages.”
“What the hell is-”
“Enough already. I got a doctored invitation, too, and I didn’t send it. I wasn’t going to bother sending one to myself but it came, just the same.”
“You call that slash mark ‘doctored’? It wasn’t just a little mark, Kris, it was like someone pressed hard with a red pen, intent on making a scar. It was drawn to look like a goddamned knife wound.”
“I know, but I didn’t do it.”
“If you didn’t send them, who did?”
“That’s the point. I don’t know. I took the invitations to the post office, but I just grabbed the stack that I’d left on the table and dumped them in the mail slot. I never double-checked them. I think someone was in my house, long enough to take out information from the packets and put them into new envelopes.” She thought hard, her mind clicking ahead. “If so, the labels probably don’t match the others unless the person who did this has the database for our mailing list.”
“You think it’s someone from the committee?” Aurora was rattled.
“I don’t know who it is.” She then went on to tell Aurora everything that had happened. Aurora listened without interruption as Kristen explained about her house probably being broken into, the box of her school paraphernalia missing from the attic, and how she suspected someone was stalking her.
“Mary, Jesus, and Joseph,” Aurora murmured at the end, and Kristen imagined her making the sign of the cross over her fairly large bosom.
“I’m scared to death for my family. I’m calling the police in the morning, after I figure out who else got the mutilated invitations. You said in your phone call that it isn’t everyone on the committee who received one?”
“So far, it’s only a few of us. For example, I got one, but DeLynn didn’t. Nor did Martina, but Bella got one and so did Mandy.”
“What about Laura?”
“No. Same with April. They got the real deal. No tampering. Their pictures weren’t slashed with a red marker.”
“Probably the same marker used on the picture of Jake and me that was left on my car.”
Aurora sucked in a quick breath. “Oh, shit, you’re right. This is going from beyond weird to downright scary.”
Kristen couldn’t have agreed more. Just talking about it made her blood run cold. She thought of the person she’d seen lurking on the other side of the street. A person staring at her house. Casing the place. Because he wanted to break in and steal junk from her high school days?
Shivering, she wrapped one arm around her abdomen. “What about people who aren’t on the reunion committee? Graduates who didn’t volunteer?”
“No way of knowing unless they call one of us-you, probably, as your name is listed on the invitation. The girls who moved farther away wouldn’t have received theirs yet,” Aurora said. “Geez, Kristen, I was just talking to Lindsay, right before I got the mail. It was fun, reconnecting, y’know? Then I hung up and went to the mail and there it was. Freaked me out.”
“I know. I just don’t get what this is about. Are they mad because we’re finally getting it together and putting on the reunion?”
“You mean, you think someone’s trying to stop it from happening?”
“Maybe…or maybe…this is about Jake?”
Aurora sucked in a breath. “You think his killer’s involved?”
“No…I don’t know…But this reunion’s stirred someone up, that’s for sure. He or she has been waiting a long time. Twenty years. Now here’s his chance, his venue to make whatever psychotic statement he wants to.”
“Who would do that?”
“Someone with serious psychoses.”
“I’ve been asking myself that since the night I found the tape and picture in my car.” She heard a click in the receiver, indicating someone was calling in. Caller ID flashed a message that Swanson H was trying to get through. “Hey, Aurora, I’ve got to go. Haylie’s on the other line.”
“You think she received one of the bad ones?”
“I don’t know. But when I find out, I’ll call you back.”
Haylie Swanson was about the last person Kristen wanted to speak with, but considering the circumstances, she knew she needed to talk to all of her classmates. Bracing herself, she clicked over to the second line. “Hello?”
“Jesus H. Christ, Kristen, why don’t you ever call me back?” Haylie demanded, her voice rising with a harsh, unrestrained fury. “I left three goddamned messages!”
“Haylie…I didn’t get them. Really.”
“Oh, sure! Your machine picked up,” she said, nearly accusing Kristen of lying.
“Oh…I haven’t heard those messages. I usually use my cell.”
“It’s your home number listed in the damned invitations, Kris,” she pointed out, so angry her voice trembled. She was breathless, as if she’d been running, and Kristen imagined her, a bundle of raw nerves, pacing on the other end of the line. “So what’s with the reunion picture? The one with my face marked up?” Haylie demanded, then Kristen heard the click of what sounded like a cigarette lighter.
“You got one, too,” Kristen said, almost whispering.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Several people got the marred invitations, we’re not really sure who, but Aurora, Mandy, Bella, me, and now you…”
“Oh…so people connected to Jake Marcott,” she said, as if the answer were obvious.
Kristen nearly fell off the chair. “Connected to Jake?”
Haylie snorted. “Well, you were dating him at the time he was killed, and Bella is his sister. I’m connected through Ian.”
“That’s kind of far-fetched, Haylie.” Maybe the woman really was having a nervous breakdown. Or maybe she was behind it all.
“Jake and Ian were friends,” Haylie explained with extreme impatience. “And whether you want to believe it or not, Jake was at the wheel the night of the accident. Jake killed Ian! I was in love with Ian, and I was once friends with Jake.” She inhaled on her cigarette. “We’re all connected to him.”
“You think the people who knew Jake are…targets?” Kristen asked, her nerves stretching as she thought about it.
“I studied everything there was to study about Jake. I made it my mission, Kris.”
“What about Mandy and Aurora?” Kristen argued. “Neither one of them dated him that I know of.”
“But they wanted to! Everyone had a thing for him, and I don’t get it. I never got it. He was bad, Kristen, really, really bad. There was a black spot in his heart, I’m telling you.”
“So anyone who ever wanted to date him is also getting marked-up invitations? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s all about people connected to him!” Haylie insisted. “Mandy Kim was one of the girls who helped Jake with his homework, got him through some of his tough classes, and he and Aurora worked together for a while at the pet store…you know the one, it used to be in kind of the Burlingame area, at the corner above Riverside Abbey.”
Kristen knew the area, south of the freeway, near the Terwilliger Curves. Crosby’s Critters. The place had changed hands half a dozen times, if Kristen remembered correctly. It had gone from pet store to athletic equipment sales, then became an insurance company and a Thai restaurant, and even a few other things that Kristen couldn’t recall. Now it was a coffee shop.
“You don’t believe me,” Haylie accused.
“I don’t want to believe it,” Kris said honestly. “I don’t like it.”
“I didn’t like getting that invitation.”
“Haylie, if you’re right, other people could be singled out. All Jake’s friends at Western Catholic and Washington.”
“No…no…They didn’t get invitations, though. Not to the St. Elizabeth’s reunion. Those went out only to the girls who graduated from the school.”
Kristen’s mind tried to follow Haylie’s twisted thought process. “Then there should be others.”
“Only a few more. Rachel Alsace was supposedly his best friend, as far as the girls at school went, and Lindsay Farrell, well, everyone knows she was the love of his life.”
Kristen heard the truth in that even though she’d always hoped Jake had loved her. It seemed silly now, and she peeked down the hallway, spying Ross at the kitchen table with Melissa. As if he’d felt her gaze, he looked up, and as his eyes found hers she felt a warmth spread through her. Why had she ever mistrusted him? How had she nearly let him slip through her fingers?
“Because I’m an idiot,” she whispered.
“What?” Haylie demanded.
“Nothing.” She smiled at her husband, then looked away, concentrating on the conversation. “If you’re right, then Rachel and Lindsay and anyone else who isn’t in the Portland area haven’t gotten their invitations yet.”
“They will,” Haylie predicted.
A cold chill ran through Kristen’s body. “How do you know?”
“Whoever is doing this has a reason. A big reason. They didn’t wait twenty years for nothing. Look, I gotta go. Think about it. We’ll talk later.”
She hung up abruptly and Kristen replaced the receiver just as the pizza arrived. Ross paid the pimply-faced kid who delivered it, then opened the box on the kitchen table. The hot aromas of garlic, tomato sauce, and cheese permeated the room. “You can eat this, right?” he said in mock seriousness to his daughter. “At least the cheese side…that’s okay?”
“Yeah. I’m not really into being a strict vegan.”
“Good.” His smothered grin told her he thought her fling with avoiding meat and animal products wasn’t serious. She made a face back at him but didn’t argue.
“So?” he said as Kristen reached for two beers in the refrigerator.
“It’s not getting better.” She noticed there were eight calls on the answering machine and, placing the long-necked bottles and an opener on the table, punched the Play button. “Lissa, figure out what you want to drink. There’s soda and water…”
As Kristen had expected, three of the phone messages were from an ever-more-frantic Haylie, one was from Aurora, another from Mandy Kim, and the last was Bella, all with basically the same question: Why had they been sent the mutilated invitations? There was also one telemarketer and a hang-up.
With each message that played, Ross and Lissa, who had been talking about the merits of vegan versus vegetarian, became increasingly quiet. When the last message ended Ross said, “As soon as we finish dinner we’re talking to the police, then we’re outta here until we change the locks.” He was putting paper plates on the table while Lissa searched through a drawer. “We’ll stay at my place.”
“The condo?” Lissa closed the drawer and looked in the dishwasher. “No way.”
“It’ll just be for a night or two.” Ross opened his beer, touched the neck of his to Kristen’s in the same silent toast they’d observed since college, then took a long sip. Kristen did the same. “It’ll be fun.”
“Whatever,” Lissa said with a disgusted sigh, then added, “Anyone know where the big knife is? The one we use to cut the pizza?”
“The butcher knife?” Kristen asked. “Isn’t it in the dishwasher?”
“You’re sure?” As if Lissa couldn’t see for herself, Kristen peered into the dishwasher, then pulled out the drawer where all the knives were kept. “That’s strange.”
“Everything’s strange tonight,” Lissa said and settled for a steak knife.
Kristen glanced over at Ross and their eyes met. They didn’t have to say a word. In a heartbeat, Ross had drained most of his beer and was boxing up the pizza. “That’s it. We’re leaving. Now. Each of you pack a bag and I’ll get the cat.”
“You can’t be serious,” Lissa whined. “I don’t want to go anywhere. And I’m hungry.”
“You’re outvoted.” Kristen was already down the hallway and in her bedroom. “Eat a slice of pizza before we go.” She hated to leave, but they couldn’t stay. Couldn’t. Who knew what the psycho who’d been in their house might do.
“Dad, this is ridiculous,” Lissa was stomping her way to her bedroom while Ross found Marmalade and placed the hissing, unhappy feline in her carrying cage.
Ten minutes later, they were out the door: Lissa, Ross, and the pizza in his pickup; Kristen and a yowling Marmalade in the Honda. “Looks like I pulled the short straw,” Kristen told the cat, who only howled more loudly.
Ross backed down the street and waited as Kristen pulled out. Then he followed her down the hill.
No one noticed the figure hidden in the shadows across the street. No one knew that they’d barely escaped with their lives.
The killer watched the vehicles drive away. She was wearing a bulky sweatshirt, and in the wide front pocket she fingered the butcher knife she’d stolen earlier.
Fury rose inside her like bubbling lava. She’d planned to wait another night before she struck, to savor the moments of anticipation another twenty-four hours, but her excitement had gotten the better of her and she’d decided she couldn’t stand it one more minute. It had been too long already; much too long.
She’d hoped to catch the bitch at home alone, but the damned husband and kid had shown up. Hadn’t she known they’d be a problem?
And now, it was too late! They were leaving!
No doubt Kristen had realized that someone had been in her house, had used a key…
Her fist clenched around the hilt of the butcher knife. She’d wanted Kristen first. And she’d envisioned slicing Kristen Daniels’s throat just at the moment the bitch recognized her killer.
She knew how it would go down:
Kristen would be in the house, probably at her desk, maybe yakking on the phone. The killer would wait until the conversation was over, the phone hung up, Kristen still lost in thought.
Then she would spring! Attack! Call out Kristen’s name, witness the whore turn! There would be a look of bewilderment as she realized who was in her home, then a second when she’d relax and call out the killer’s name in mild confusion.
“What are you doing here?” she would ask…then she would notice the knife. Her own kitchen knife. Panic would set in. Her eyes would round and she’d start to scream or run. But it would be too late.
The killer would plunge the knife straight into the bitch’s useless heart.
She was shaking.
Standing in the darkness, she felt a thrill like no other. She was furious that her mission had gone awry. Shaking with repressed need.
Get a grip.
Don’t lose it.
Not now…not after you’ve waited so damned long.
Slowly, without speaking, she counted to ten. Slowly she calmed her raging heartbeat. Slowly she got herself under control.
Maybe this would work out to her advantage.
Maybe she could save the best for last.
There were others. She’d thought about taking the others first, one by one, of course. That had been her original plan, but after being in Kristen’s house, finding the slut’s diary and all her ridiculous pictures of Jake Marcott, the killer had changed her mind. Her bloodlust had been so overpowering that she’d made a dangerous misstep.
One that she could correct.
Stay the course. Don’t veer off track. There’s another who needs to die.
Letting out a breath in the cold night air, the killer realized that sometime during her reverie it had begun to rain. A thin, fine mist caressed her skin and caused ringlets to form around her face. She tilted up her head, letting the filmy drops touch her eyes, her cheeks, her throat.
Calmer now, she fingered the cold blade once more.
Get it together. There is still time.
You know what you have to do.
You know who is next.
She licked her lips. Envisioned another victim. This one with surly blue eyes, full lips, and a face framed by long blond hair.
They talked to the police. For several hours. In Ross’s condominium. With the panoramic view of the city lights reflecting off the Willamette River, Ross, Lissa, and Kristen all gave statements about the events of the evening, but the cops were skeptical. The only crimes were a supposed break-in and the stealing of a butcher knife and box of ancient schoolgirl memorabilia. The two cops took down the information and agreed that the special invitations were weird, someone’s sick idea of a joke. Same with the tape and letter left in Kristen’s car.
Before they left they promised to have someone go over to the house in the daylight and take a look around. They advised Kristen to get an alarm system and a big dog. Forget the wimpy-looking orange cat. Clearly, though they were doing their duty, they felt the perpetrator’s actions were more pranklike than a serious threat.
But Kristen was beginning to put more stock in Haylie’s theories and hadn’t forgotten that someone had killed Jake Marcott, someone who had escaped justice.
Kristen checked the time. It was late. She wanted to call Lindsay and Rachel but decided to wait to learn if they, too, had received tampered-with invitations. If they had, then Haylie’s twisted hypothesis might be proven true.
Kristen walked down the short hallway to the second bedroom, where Lissa was asleep on the daybed, the television still flickering blue, the sound hushed. How peaceful their daughter appeared, Kristen thought as she leaned a shoulder on the doorjamb. As if Lissa didn’t have a care in the world. Kristen couldn’t help but wonder how much of her daughter’s teenage rebellion was the normal part of being a kid stretching her wings and how much was because of the deterioration of her parents’ marriage.
Guilt dug at her heart, but she pushed it aside. The past was over. It was time to move on.
She didn’t hear Ross approach but felt his arm slip around her waist. Pressing warm lips to her ear, he said, “She’s fine. I think it’s time you and I called it a day.”
She felt a secret stirring in her blood as he pulled the door shut, took her hand, and led her farther down the hall to the master suite. A king-sized bed took up one wall and faced the windows. He closed the door, then pulled her through the spacious room to the master bath, where an oversized tub was filling with hot water. Steam rose toward the ceiling, fogging windows that also faced the city lights.
He’d lit half a dozen fragrant candles, and the tiny flames were the only illumination in the room.
She eyed the rapidly filling tub and clucked her tongue. “Looks like you’re trying to seduce me.”
“Nuh-uh.” He let go of her hand to place both of his on her waist. “You got that backward, lady.”
“Oh.” She laughed. “I’m seducing you?”
He smiled and his eyes glinted devilishly. “How about a fresh start? You and me.”
“I thought that’s what we were doing.”
“No, we agreed to try. Let’s forget the trying part and just do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m asking you to marry me. Right now. Right here. I want a commitment, Kris, not just a maybe. And don’t tell me that we’re still married. I know.” His deep gaze caught hers. “You know what I mean.”
She thought about it a second and looked at his earnest face, his intense gray eyes, the dark hair that was forever falling over his forehead, the face of the man she loved.
Ross said softly, “No more accusations, no more putting work before time together, no more Jake Marcott.”
She nodded and felt a rush of stupid tears. Dear God, what kind of moron was she? This was her husband and they’d been married a long, long time. This wasn’t a new, untried head rush of first dates.
“Just please don’t make me go through another ceremony.”
“All I want is for you to say yes.”
“Okay. Yes!” She stood on her tiptoes and brushed her lips over his. “Yes, yes, yes!”
He laughed, and shook his head at her enthusiasm.
“Not yet.” He reached for the top button of her blouse and grinned wickedly. “But I have a feeling I will be.”
The killer cut the engine and parked not far from Westmoreland Park, only a few blocks away from her target’s home. She’d been here before, scoped out the place and knew, if she was patient, that she would get her first real opportunity. There was a window that was always cracked and, to ensure that it stayed that way, the killer had slipped inside one day while the bitch was at work and tinkered with the latch so that it would never stick tight again.
Now it was just a matter of raising it, crawling into the house, creeping down a short hallway, and opening the bedroom door, which conveniently had no lock.
Dressed in black, she jogged, as if on an early-morning workout. She was wearing a blond wig and colored contacts, along with a fine set of fake boobs, and beneath the jogging suit, a little extra padding over her ass and waist-a chunky girl trying to shed some extra pounds.
The knife was hidden.
But she encountered no one on this dark morning.
And the house was just ahead.
She ducked into the back alley and caught her breath, but her blood was pumping, as much as from anticipation as the short run.
Counting slowly to ten, calming the excitement surging through her veins, she moved through the shadows.
Haylie couldn’t sleep.
Probably because of the damned reunion and the closing of the school and the image of Ian that had started creeping into her dreams again. She’d thought she was over him, that she’d put all those painful thoughts about his death behind her.
It’s not as if she’d pined for him for twenty years, she thought, sitting up and staring at the clock near her bed. She’d tried to move on. She really had.
She made a sound of disgust. Four-damned-thirty in the morning. An indecent time to be awake. She thought she heard a noise outside but dismissed it. Probably the cat. Or raccoons scavenging in the backyard, trying to get at the Japanese goldfish she kept in a small pond near the patio.
Pulling her pack of cigarettes from the bedside table, she then walked outside to her private back patio where, standing in the old T-shirt she used as a nightgown and her fuzzy bunny slippers, she lit up. No raccoons. The pond was undisturbed, water lilies lying softly on the surface, the fish safe for the night.
One less problem in a world filled with them.
A cool mist was falling, shrouding the night, and for an inexplicable reason, goose bumps rose on the back of her arms. She was jittery, had been for weeks or months or maybe even years. She lived in a small bungalow in Sell-wood, a community in the southeast part of Portland. The house, small to begin with, had been divided into two tiny apartments. Recently the neighbors had moved, leaving the cat she’d reluctantly adopted and a For Rent sign out front.
The cat, a black longhair named Bo, was skulking through the garden now, slinking among the barren pots where petunias and impatiens had thrived in the summer. He’d never shown any interest in the fish, thank God.
“Come here, Bo,” she said. “Kitty, kitty, kitty.”
The cat turned and looked at her, standing beneath the porch light, his green eyes growing round, but he didn’t budge. He was an outside cat and maybe she was lucky that he didn’t want to be an inside one. This way she never had to mess with a litter box.
Closing her eyes for a second, she dragged deep on her cigarette, feeling the warm smoke curl and fill her lungs as the nicotine worked its way through her bloodstream.
She should give up the habit, but it wasn’t as if she hadn’t tried. She’d used the patch, the gum, and even hypnosis. Nothing had worked. Like it or not, she’d have to quit cold turkey.
Before her fortieth birthday.
In the meantime she enjoyed smoking and refused to feel like a criminal just because she liked the buzz. And now, with the reunion looming ahead, with meeting all those people she’d known in high school, with all the talk of Jake Marcott, Ian’s face had again crept into her dreams. No way was she going to give up her pack-a-day habit yet!
Ian…she thought sadly. She wished she could get over him, give it up, but it was such a damned injustice. Jake Marcott had killed him, pure and simple. Why the cops and everyone who had graduated with her couldn’t see it, she didn’t understand. But Jake Marcott was not the saint everyone pretended he was. No way. He’d been a sinner in life. It was unfair that he’d become a martyr.
A soft footfall sounded.
Haylie twisted her head.
At this hour?
She looked at the fenced yard, but there was no one there, no one lurking in the shadows where the lamplight didn’t touch. The traffic on the street was nonexistent at this hour, and it was even too early for those type-A joggers and bicyclers who were rabid in their need for exercise.
She took another drag and looked for the cat again, but he’d disappeared. “Bo?” She didn’t want him to go anywhere near the street, though he did seem to have some brains when it came to avoiding cars and roads. “Kitty?”
Not even a sough of wind in the branches of the single pine tree in the yard.
“Fine, stay outside.”
Another quiet scrape.
The hairs on the back of Haylie’s neck lifted. “Bo?” she said anxiously, turning to go inside. What was it about this night that had her so anxious?
The cat was at her feet, staring into the night, and Haylie’s heart nearly stopped.
Damn it all to hell. She hadn’t counted on the cat. Quickly, still hidden in the shadows, blond wig and extra padding left beneath the branches of a rhododendron, the killer slid her knife from its sheath. She didn’t have any more time. She was lucky Haylie had stepped outside, unlucky that the cat had sensed her.
She crept forward as stealthily and quickly as the stupid feline who’d betrayed her.
“What is it?” Haylie asked nervously, taking one step toward the back door.
Quick as lightning, a dark figure stepped from around the corner of the garage and sprang. A woman. Armed with a butcher knife.
Oh, shit! Haylie, dropping her cigarette, leaped toward the open door. She wasn’t fast enough. The killer was on her in an instant.
“No way, bitch!”
Fear screamed through Haylie’s body. “No! Don’t!”
The knife gleamed in the pale light.
“Wait! Wait!” Haylie cried. The blade swung in an arc. Cutting downward, flashing in the lamp glow. Slicing through her skin.
Haylie tripped over her own feet. Tried to scream. It was cut off with another searing slice. Her own blood sprayed. She stumbled backward.
Oh, God, was this really happening?
The blade struck again, tearing into her flesh.
Pain exploded in her abdomen.
The killer stabbed again and all the rage, all the pent-up fury of twenty long years, screamed through her brain. Die, you miserable, spoiled brat. Die! Die! Die!
The blade came out of Haylie with a hideous sucking noise. The killer didn’t wait. She plunged the knife into the crumpling body. Again and again, feeling the warm, wet spray of blood and the cold satisfaction that justice, at last, was served. At her hand.
But Haylie was only the first.
She felt the body shudder and let it fall onto the pavement.
Near-lifeless eyes looked up at her.
She stared down into the eyes of her victim.
Haylie was near death, but her lips formed an unspoken “You?”
And then the light in her eyes faded.
Haylie, the first, was dead.
Exhilaration sizzled through the killer’s body as she worked quickly, unzipping and stripping out of her jogging suit. She stuffed it, along with her extra padding, wig, and knife, into the athletic bag. Now she was in skintight neoprene, which she covered with an oversized hiking parka that reached her knees. Her hair, still wound onto her head, was quickly disguised by a Mariners baseball cap. There was still some blood on her black running shoes, but she couldn’t help that. She’d wash them at St. Elizabeth’s in the gym and trash the clothes in an incinerator that was still used occasionally at the school. First things first. She had to make this look like a robbery gone bad.
She saw the cat hiding beneath an azalea and then she left, stomping out the still-smoldering cigarette and knowing that she’d sent Haylie Swanson’s soul straight to hell.
Part Two. LINDSAY by Wendy Corsi Staub
New York City, May 2006
Lindsay Farrell bolted from her bed, heart pounding wildly from the shrill middle-of-the-night ringing that had just startled her from a sound sleep. She gripped the phone tightly against her ear.
“Mommy…why did you do it?”
“Who is this?” she demanded, her heart pounding wildly. She strode blindly across the darkened bedroom, stubbing her toe painfully against the footboard of her queen-sized bed, barely noticing.
“It’s me, Mommy.” The voice was strange, high-pitched. It could belong to a child…
But he wouldn’t be a child anymore, she reminded herself.
No, her son would be nineteen now-twenty this coming summer.
He was born right here in New York City, the week before she started her first semester at Fordham University in the Bronx. She’d attended her first day of classes with engorged breasts that throbbed painfully, and a heart that ached even worse.
“Why did you give me away, Mommy?”
“Stop calling me!”
Lindsay disconnected the call and tossed the cordless phone across the room. She heard it fall to the carpet with a dull thud.
It wouldn’t be broken, though.
She’d thrown it even harder last night, against the wall, and she was certain it wouldn’t work when she found it this morning.
She hoped it wouldn’t…not that she honestly believed a broken telephone receiver would put an end to the eerie wee-hour phone calls. According to her Caller ID box, they were coming from a Private Name, Private Number. Pressing star-sixty-nine on the dial after the calls got her nowhere. Somehow, the number was completely blocked.
Meanwhile, she’d gotten a call just about every other night for the past week or so-always the same voice, always saying the same thing.
Why did you give me away, Mommy?
So somebody knew her secret.
Was it really that surprising?
Of course, she trusted the kindly nuns at Blessed Sacrament, the Queens home for unwed mothers, where she’d arrived that June just after high-school graduation and stayed until she had the baby.
And she trusted Sister Neva, the aging Reverend Mother at St. Elizabeth’s, who’d arranged her referral to the home.
She’d confided her secret to no one else-even to this day.
Did she really believe she’d kept it that well hidden?
At the time, yes.
But in her muddled, distraught state-first because of the pregnancy, then because of Jake’s shocking murder-she really couldn’t be sure of anything.
Looking back, she recalled that she’d bought at least seven home-pregnancy-test kits when she first realized, just before that ill-fated Valentine’s Day dance, that her period was late. She’d bought them at various drugstores and supermarkets, thinking that was wiser than returning to the same place over and over again. And she’d always attempted to camouflage her telltale purchase with several other items. Had she really thought the cashier wouldn’t even notice a pregnancy test nestled among the packs of gum, magazines, panty hose?
Maybe. She was such a wreck back then, even before the tests confirmed her worst suspicion.
Afterward, she remembered trying to conceal her thickening waistline and swelling breasts beneath her ugly, ill-fitting school uniform in those last four months of school. She had always been slender; a few people-especially her mother-commented that she seemed to be “filling out.” Aurora Zephyr even jokingly told her she’d better watch out that she didn’t add the notorious “freshman fifteen” pounds when she got to college.
Had her friends been whispering about her escalating weight-and speculating about the possible cause for the gain-behind her back?
Maybe. Probably. Her group of friends, always tight knit, seemed to splinter after Jake’s death. Even Kristen and Rachel, her closest confidantes, became distant.
If that hadn’t happened-if Jake hadn’t been killed-Lindsay might have confided in them. She might even have told her parents, who would have been disappointed but probably would have stood by her and helped her hide her condition-if only to protect the family name.
But she didn’t share her secret with her parents or her friends.
Instead, she miserably battled round-the-clock morning sickness on her own, hoping no one would overhear her daily vomiting sessions in the school bathroom.
When somebody eventually did, it was the last person with whom she would have expected to share such a scandalous confidence.
Perpetually patrolling the corridors in her black habit, leaning heavily on her wooden cane, the Reverend Mother was an intimidating figure. Never more so than the day Lindsay emerged from a bathroom stall to find Sister Neva standing there, expressionless, obviously having heard every last gag and retch.
“Are you sick, child?” she asked, fixing Lindsay with a level stare.
Lindsay started to stutter, then burst into tears.
To her shock, Sister Neva folded her into a firm embrace-more bolstering than affectionate, but it was what Lindsay needed in that moment.
She found herself being led to the inner sanctum: the Reverend Mother’s office, furnished only with an austere desk, guest chair, file cabinet, and of course the ubiquitous crucifix on the wall.
There, Lindsay confessed her greatest sin-and was met not with disapproval, but stoic support.
With resignation, the aging nun agreed not to tell Lindsay’s parents, on the condition that Lindsay allow her to make arrangements for the baby to be delivered-and adopted-on the East Coast.
There was no question, ever, that she was going to have the baby. She was a devout Catholic.
But Sister Neva stepped in and took all-encompassing control of the situation as if it were her own personal mission to ensure that there would be no other option. She was determined to propel Lindsay through the pregnancy until the baby was safely delivered to deserving Catholic parents.
Until she arrived on the scene, Lindsay hadn’t given much thought to what would happen after she gave birth.
Which seemed hard to believe now, from an adult perspective. As a high-powered Manhattan event planner, her entire career was based on intricate short-and long-term calendar organization.
But back then, she was more concerned with the immediate future-her own-than the long-range repercussions of her condition on herself or anyone else. Even the baby.
So it was a relief to defer that monumental decision to somebody with infinitely more wisdom and connections. The nun cleverly arranged for her to take a summer class at Fordham University so that her parents wouldn’t question her early departure for college. Not that they would have anyway, after all she had been through.
They tiptoed around her for months after Jake died, attributing her withdrawn behavior entirely to the fact that her longtime boyfriend had been brutally slain and she had found his body.
They seemed relieved when Lindsay announced she was leaving two months early for college, and they didn’t bat an eye when she said the campus dorms were unavailable until the fall semester. No, they never suspected that her temporary summer address was a diocesan-run home for unwed mothers.
Lindsay left the details in Sister Neva’s capable hands without a second thought…until it came time to hand over her son to the waiting adoption official.
That was her first moment of regret-and far from her last.
But by then, it was too late.
In a matter of seconds, the baby was gone, whisked from her life and into another, presumably with a pair of loving parents, a stable home, and a brighter future than an unwed, unemployed college freshman could provide.
She went on to get her undergraduate degree at Fordham and her MBA at Columbia.
In the two decades that followed, not a day had gone by without Lindsay wondering about her lost son. Wondering what he was doing, where he was, who he was. Every time she passed a boy about his age on the street, she did a double take-especially if the boy happened to have dark hair and eyes like her own…and like the father’s.
She had long since taken to thinking of him that way, ever since the nuns in the home first questioned her about him that summer.
“Have you told the father, child?”
“No. He…died before I could tell him.”
It was easier that way, she told herself and God, asking forgiveness for the lie.
She alone signed the adoption papers. She alone suffered the barren consequences that lingered for years, lingered even now.
Thanks to those unsettling phone calls.
Obviously, somebody had stumbled onto the truth and wanted to torment her now, just when her life felt settled at last.
But who would do such a thing?
Chuckling softly to herself, she hung up the telephone, pleased with Lindsay Farrell’s frightened reaction to her taunts.
I bet you thought nobody knew what you did, she silently told her former classmate, picturing her, alone and scared, in her far-off East Coast apartment. You tried so hard to hide your tracks.
Or so Lindsay Farrell must have believed.
She’d had no way of knowing that her every move was being watched. That someone had stealthily followed her up and down the aisles of the drugstore, watching her furtively pluck a pregnancy test from the shelf. Her forced nonchalance was laughable. She did everything but roll her eyes skyward and whistle tunelessly as the cashier rang up her purchases.
Of course, I couldn’t follow her into her bathroom back at home and watch her take the test…
No, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out the results. Not when she proceeded to buy test after test in the days that followed, as if hoping to convince herself that the first one was wrong.
So. Lindsay Farrell was pregnant with Jake Marcott’s baby.
Whether Jake carried that news to his grave or was oblivious to it was unclear.
What was clear was that to this day, Lindsay remained troubled by what she did.
I can hear it in her voice.
I just wish I could see it in her eyes, too.
But it wouldn’t be long now.
The reunion was less than two months away.
Lindsay would be winging her way back to Portland, unaware that her first trip home in twenty years would be her last.
What if she isn’t planning to attend the reunion at all?
That would be a shame.
No, it would be more than just a shame. It would be disastrous.
I’ll just have to give her a good reason to come home.
Phone still in hand, she quickly dialed general nationwide directory assistance.
“Yes, I’d like the number for United Airlines, please.”
Settling her head against the pillows once more, Lindsay inhaled, held her breath for as long as she could, then exhaled, the way she did when she was stretching and winding down from her strenuous Saturday morning spinning class.
Right now, though, her pulse was racing faster than it ever had at the gym.
Maybe I should call the police, she speculated…and quickly discarded the thought.
The NYPD had far bigger concerns. Terrorism, gridlock, a masked rapist who had been attacking women on the Upper East Side. They’d probably laugh at her if she approached them about a couple of prank phone calls.
It wasn’t as though she’d been harmed.
Not physically, anyway.
Well, that was a different story. But she’d survive. She always did.
She did better than survive, actually.
Look at me now, Nana, she would think every time she achieved another milestone. Her undergrad degree, her master’s, her first entry-level job, her first promotion, the launch of her own business…
Look at me now.
Her grandmother would have been proud of her. She owned a spacious-for Manhattan, anyway-one-bedroom co-op on the East Side, with a terrace. She had furnished the apartment with a mix of custom-made pieces and antiques handed down from Nana herself. She had even recently enrolled in a cooking class so that she could become proficient in the kitchen; her own family had always relied on their personal chef.
Plus, she was single-handedly running Lindsay Farrell Events as efficiently as her widowed grandmother used to run Farrell Timber.
Of course, Nana had help from Lindsay’s father, Craig, and his brother, Andrew. If you could call it that. The brothers never got along. They couldn’t even agree where their mother should be buried when she passed away, back when Lindsay was in high school.
Grandpa had been cremated, his ashes scattered over the timber farm. Nana didn’t want that. She was a devout Catholic; she wanted to be buried beneath a granite cross on sacred ground. But the cemetery that adjoined Saint Michael’s, her home parish well east of Portland, was too close to the Columbia River. There were old wives’ tales of caskets being lowered into watery graves. Dad was vehemently opposed to that.
Uncle Andrew was just as opposed to Nana being buried right in the West Hills, at St. Elizabeth’s cemetery. He reasoned that Nana’s ties to that church were too recent; she’d only started attending when she moved in with Lindsay and her family, too infirm to care for herself any longer.
In the end, Dad, the elder sibling, won out. He usually did.
Lindsay was pleased. She’d visited her grandmother’s grave often-until she left St. Elizabeth’s, and Portland, for good.
Now, her mother had told her the last time they talked, the old school and church were about to be razed. The news was unsettling.
“What’s going to happen to Nana’s grave?”
“I imagine the cemetery will stay intact,” her mother said vaguely and changed the subject to yet another investment property she and Lindsay’s father were purchasing in Nevada, where they’d moved after retirement.
Lindsay hung up troubled by the thought of the familiar old red-brick school-her alma mater-being destroyed.
Ironic, since her lingering memories of the place were less than positive.
It was there, in the garden labyrinth that lay between the school and the cemetery, that she had discovered Jake Marcott’s body, pinned to a tree by a crossbow.
The macabre sight had haunted her ever since…
Among other grim memories.
I should be glad that St. Elizabeth’s will be closed down, she told herself now. Maybe that will bring some closure.
For Jake’s horrific death, and for her own persistent maternal ache.
Somebody knew her secret.
Probably somebody from her past who had resurfaced to taunt her in the middle of the night.
It was just a cruel prank.
Now, remembering that Jake’s murder had never been solved, she couldn’t help but hope, with a shudder, that that was all there was to it.
The arrangements had been made. She was going to New York the day after tomorrow, staying in a hotel on the East Side. Not fancy, but you’d have to be a multimillionaire to afford a fancy hotel in Manhattan for as long as she’d need to be there.
The best part: she had cleverly selected one of those all-suite hotels that catered to business executives who needed to stick around New York for more than a couple of nights. Nobody would question her ongoing presence-a single woman alone in a big city. They’d just think she was there on business.
And I will be.
She smiled to herself.
And she kept picking her way through the basement of St. Elizabeth’s school, guided by her lighter’s flickering beam to the secret supply closet.
After twirling the lock, she slipped inside and closed the door after her-as though it were necessary. As though anyone in their right mind would want to be down here…
Anyone other than me.
Then again, some people might think she wasn’t in her right mind. But they didn’t know what Jake-yes, Jake, and the others-had put her through. Nobody knew.
That was why nobody would ever suspect her when this was over and her mission was accomplished.
She lit the lantern’s wick and surveyed her handiwork: the reconstructed row of lockers that had once lined the wide corridor a few stories above.
Tonight, she bypassed Kristen’s and paused only briefly at Haylie’s, with its newest relic added just the other night: that ridiculous black armband she used to wear in ongoing mourning over Ian’s death.
What an unexpected bonus it had been to find it tucked into her jewelry box right on her dresser. She’d discovered it while ransacking the apartment, trying to make it seem as though the murder had been triggered by an interrupted burglary. She took her wallet, some jewelry, and a couple of stock certificates.
Passing Louie Blake, a nefarious local junkie, slumbering on the sidewalk not far from Haylie’s apartment, she was struck by inspiration. She tucked the wallet, jewelry, and stock certificates in among his belongings heaped in a shopping cart.
The armband, she kept, of course-and spirited it right over to its place of honor in Haylie’s old locker.
Haylie really was a sicko to have saved it for all these years.
But now it belongs to me.
Along with everything else assembled here.
She opened locker 123-Lindsay Farrell’s.
The contents were meager, so far. Taped to the door, in an attempt to reconstruct its senior-year state, were dozens of pictures of Jake, surrounded by shiny red paper hearts. There were also a couple of textbooks on the shelves.
On a hook, however, was a prized item: the sleeveless ice blue dress Lindsay had worn to the Valentine’s Day dance that night. Lindsay’s mother went through the family’s closets every season and donated a whole load of clothes to a secondhand shop run by a charitable organization.
The spring after Jake’s murder, the ice blue dress was among them, as she had prayed it might be.
What a thrill it was to spot it hanging there on a rack amid designer dresses worn once, if at all, by Portland’s elite, then cast off without a backward glance.
It had obviously been cleaned after that night. Yet if she looked closely, she could still see the faintest remnants of a stain in the satiny folds of the skirt.
It made her giddy just to look at it, to remember Lindsay covered in blood.
Somebody else’s blood, that night.
But soon enough, it would be her own.
The dress was a find, and a steal…
And I didn’t even have to steal it.
She would have, though. Just as she had stolen-and would continue to steal-all those mementos from the others.
This shrine was a work in progress. She planned to have it completed before the wrecking ball swung into the brick wall of the old school this summer.
It seemed fitting that these forgotten relics be buried deep in the underground rubble…
Just as their owners would, by then, also be buried.
Dead and buried.
She doubted it. But she sure as hell was going to try to forget all that could never be forgiven.
“Lindsay Farrell,” she said into the phone, her eyes still on the report in her hand.
“Yes?” Then she recognized the voice and set the report aside, surprised to hear from him.
“Isaac! How’ve you been?” she asked her ex-boyfriend-the man she had honestly thought, if only fleetingly, might be The One.
Yes, he had baggage…who didn’t?
Yes, he was a couple of years younger than she was…who cared?
Not Lindsay. Not at first, anyway.
Isaac Halpern’s dark, brooding good looks blinded her to the fact that he wasn’t ready for a serious relationship.
Or maybe it was more that his dark, brooding good looks reminded her of someone else.
Someone she still wasn’t over, even after all these years.
Someone who’d never even known that she was truly in love with him…
Because she’d never realized it herself.
Not back then. Not until it was too late. For them. For a lot of things.
But that was ancient history.
Isaac was more recent-but history nonetheless.
“I miss you,” he said simply.
She hesitated. “I miss you, too.”
It was true.
She did miss him. But nowhere near as much as she missed his predecessor, who showed her that phrases like weak in the knees and butterflies in the stomach were rooted not just in the romantic novels she liked to read, but in reality.
Weak knees, butterflies, a pounding heart, a light head…those were all things she experienced when she was with him.
But she never felt those things with Isaac.
Not with anyone else, ever.
Still, she couldn’t help hoping that maybe someone would eventually come along to make her forget him. Yes, maybe someday she’d fall in love again, get married, have a baby…
One she’d get to keep, raise, love.
But I loved you, too, she silently told the son she hadn’t seen since the day he was born. It sounds crazy, but I really did love you. No, I really do love you. Still. You, and your father.
“I thought maybe we could meet for a drink some night after work,” Isaac was saying in her ear.
“Why?” It came out more sharply than she intended. “I mean, you know nothing can come of it, right?”
“Right. I know.” He hesitated. “I’m with somebody else now, Lindsay.”
Her breath caught in her throat. For a moment, she couldn’t find her voice. When she did, she couldn’t complete a coherent sentence anyway.
“It isn’t…she isn’t…you didn’t find…”
“No. It isn’t Rachel. Her name is Kylah.”
“Does she know?”
Rachel. The woman who haunted Isaac Halpern the way her baby’s father haunted Lindsay. If anyone could understand how that felt, it was Lindsay.
That was why she’d left him. Because she understood. Because she didn’t want to settle for second place in his heart…even though she was willing to give him second place in her own.
“No,” Isaac said heavily. “She doesn’t know about Rachel.”
“You should tell her.”
“Why? So that she can leave me, like you did?”
“Look, I don’t blame you, Lindsay. Nobody wants to compete with my long-lost first love.”
And that, Lindsay thought, was precisely the reason she herself might never meet someone and get married after all. Because she couldn’t let go of her long-lost first love. She didn’t want to let go.
“Sorry,” Isaac said, shifting gears, “this was a bad idea. I just thought maybe we could still be friends, like you said.”
That’s right, she had. Wasn’t it what you said when you broke up with someone?
Let’s still be friends.
Along with those other old standbys, There’s nobody else and It’s not you, it’s me.
She’d used all of those lines, many times, with different men, in her adult life.
But she’d never had a chance to say those lines to him, twenty years ago-even if she had been so inclined.
To him, she’d said nothing at all.
She’d just pretended it never happened, and so had he.
And nobody ever knew there had been something between them that rainy long-ago New Year’s Eve, or that Lindsay had borne his child the following summer.
Mommy…why did you give me away?
No. She was wrong.
Somebody knew about the baby.
That meant they might know about him, as well.
Maybe it was time for her to revisit the past after all, before her closet doors opened wide and all her skeletons came tumbling out.
“Lindsay?” Isaac said, startling her back to the present. “I’ll let you go. I’m sorry I bothered you at work. I just wanted to touch base.”
“I’m glad you did. And…I’d love to have a drink some night after work. You know, just to catch up. Okay?”
“Okay.” He sounded surprised. “How about, um, next Tuesday?”
“I can’t…I have a cooking class Tuesday nights.”
She could hear the smile in his voice. He knew she was useless in the kitchen.
“I thought I should learn.”
“Good for you. How are you doing so far?”
“Great.” She felt obligated to add, “Then again, we’re still on prep work-you know, easy stuff like chopping and dicing. But I’m an ace with a Bermuda onion, let me tell you.”
He laughed. “Your Nana would be proud. All right, then…if you can’t do Tuesday, how about a week from this Thursday?”
She faltered. She really didn’t want to put something on the calendar.
Then again, she was free that night, and Isaac always could smell an excuse from a mile away.
“Sure,” she told him reluctantly, and entered it into her on-line calendar before hanging up the phone.
She could certainly use all the friends she could get these days. Jillian, her longtime across-the-hall neighbor, had relocated to an uptown co-op. Terri and Amanda, her former happy-hour pals, had both married and moved to the suburbs, like most of the other friends she had known along the way.
New York was becoming a lonely place for Lindsay. Sometimes, she found it hard to believe she’d lived here longer now than she had ever lived in Portland.
For some reason, that still seemed like home.
And she suspected that perhaps this never would.
If it was this challenging to get into Lindsay’s office suite, it was going to be even more challenging to get into her apartment.
Challenging…but not impossible. And she had always liked a challenge.
She knew that New Yorkers couldn’t be counted on to hide keys outside their doors. They were much too savvy for that.
But I have a good plan. Not foolproof, but so far it’s working, she congratulated herself now, nearing the end of phase one.
Lindsay’s assistant was easily distracted by a muscular bike messenger who kept her flirtatiously occupied at the front desk. He had his price, of course-everyone did-and it was a steep one. But he didn’t ask questions.
That was the great thing about New York City, as opposed to Portland. People here might not hide their keys in plain sight, but they definitely paid less attention to others. They tended to mind their own business. Yes, they were wary about the usual urban threats-muggers, speeding cabs-but they never really looked strangers in the eye. That went with the territory.
Busy with the messenger, Kara never even noticed the intruder slipping past the front desk, making her way down the short corridor beyond.
There were three offices in the suite. In one, a young man tapped away at a computer keyboard, oblivious to anyone passing by. The next was empty. There was a light on in the third and largest office, and Lindsay’s name was on the door.
There was an office machine alcove across from it. The overhead light wasn’t on and the machines were off, as if they were rarely used.
Perfect. She ducked behind a copier and waited for Lindsay to leave her desk.
Twenty minutes later, her patience paid off.
Lindsay didn’t have her purse in hand when she walked quickly down the hall toward the ladies’ room.
Turned out she left it on a hook behind the door of her office.
I was counting on that.
She was also counting on Lindsay’s keys being inside. She reached in and felt around for them…
It took her less than ten minutes to slip back out of the suite, have copies made at the hardware store down the avenue, and return.
By then, the messenger was gone.
Kara looked up from the desk when she appeared.
“Hi-I just found this by the elevator on this floor,” she said, handing over the silver Tiffany key ring, which was, fortuitously, engraved. “Someone must have dropped these. The initials are LF. Are they yours?”
“No, but they’re my boss’s. Those must be hers. Thanks so much. I’ll give them to her.”
That was it. Easy-breezy.
From there, she headed over to Lindsay’s East Fifty-Fourth Street high-rise building, where she was hoping the doorman would be willing to look the other way, for a price.
Of course, he would have to be used to it. She had done her homework and was aware that the building happened to be home to J. T. Maguire, the former lead singer of a boy band, now hugely famous as a solo artist.
Groupies and paparazzi frequently staked out the place, hoping for a glimpse.
She approached the doorman, a bored-looking young man with a thin black mustache.
When she furtively told him what she wanted, he didn’t even seem suspicious that a thirtysomething woman was interested in J. T. Maguire.
Why would he be? She’d read that white-haired old ladies dropped off their panties for the twenty-year-old heartthrob.
The doorman pocketed her wad of bills and motioned her to go ahead into the deserted lobby.
“Thanks,” she called belatedly over her shoulder.
Not for you, she thought gleefully. And not for J. T. Maguire, either.
But Lindsay Farrell? She was about to have a big, big problem on her hands…
Returning from a twenty-minute conference in her assistant Ray’s office next door, Lindsay stopped short in the doorway of her office.
That was strange-there were her keys, sitting right in the open on her desk.
How had they gotten there? She could have sworn she had put them back into her purse, same as always, when she unlocked her office door earlier…
But then, she’d been a little bleary-eyed this morning, thanks to yet another wee-hour phone call last night. It was the same high-pitched childlike voice that didn’t belong to a child. It kept calling her Mommy, asking her why she’d given him away.
She’d finally slammed down the phone in tears, and she hadn’t slept another wink.
She looked up to see Kara, her recent hire, standing in the doorway of her office.
Slender and attractive, she had so far proven herself to be less interested in her entry-level administrative duties than she was in taking long lunch breaks and flirting with the newlywed Ray, with the computer-repair technician, and even, just this morning, with a bike messenger.
Oh, well. It was May. A whole new crop of college grads would be sending out resumes. It shouldn’t be hard to find another entry-level assistant when Kara inevitably was fired or quit.
“The mail just came.”
“Thanks, Kara.” Lindsay accepted the stack and flipped through it briefly: several bills on top in white legal envelopes, a couple of trade publications and promo catalogs tucked beneath them, and a large manila envelope on the bottom. “Did you remember to book the Gramercy Room at the Peninsula for the banquet in October?”
Kara slapped a hand against her red-lipsticked mouth. “I knew I forgot something. I’ll do it right away. It was for the ninth, right?”
“Oh, right. The twelfth. Gotcha.”
Lindsay sank into her chair and sighed as her assistant scurried from the office. She swiveled away from the desk, the stack of mail in her lap.
The plate-glass window was spattered with raindrops, and the sky beyond it, above a monochromatic skyline, was a milky shade of gray. This kind of weather never failed to remind her of home.
Home being the Pacific Northwest, where rainy, overcast days were as prevalent as honking yellow taxicabs were here. Not just in midspring, but much of the year.
I have to stop dwelling on Portland today, she scolded herself. It only reminded her of things she should be trying to forget.
Seeking a distraction, she flipped through the mail again, coming to rest on the large manila envelope on the bottom.
So much for a distraction.
The return address was in Portland, and the name above it was a familiar one.
Formerly known as Kristen Daniels.
Formerly known as Lindsay’s BFF, as they used to call each other, along with Rachel Alsace.
Best Friends Forever.
Other than Christmas cards that arrived every December with all the regularity-and scintillating detail-of her exterminator’s yearly retainer bill, Lindsay never heard from Kristen.
So why now?
With slightly trembling fingers, Lindsay reached for a letter opener and slit the envelope open.
Inside was a thick packet of folded papers.
The class reunion.
Aurora had already contacted her about it, leaving a message asking if she wanted to be involved in the planning. Of course, she’d said no-via a return message, glad she didn’t actually get Aurora on the phone, knowing how persuasive she always could be.
Lindsay verbally blamed her lack of involvement on the fact that she was a continent away. But truly, she simply wasn’t interested in revisiting the past. There were too many painful things about it.
Now, however, scanning the invitation and the accompanying forms, including a chatty letter from Kristen, Lindsay found herself smiling.
All right, so there were a few good memories, too.
She was almost feeling tempted to consider making a reservation…despite serious doubts. It might be nice, after all, to see all those girls again. To catch up, to say good-bye to the old school building, to lay the past to rest at last.
Yes, maybe she should go.
She scanned the reservation form and the update questionnaire. There was also a brochure from a new Marriott Residence Inn that had gone up not far from their alma mater, apparently on the site of the strip mall where she and her friends used to shop before getting pizza at Ricardo’s nearby.
So the old neighborhood was changing. She wondered if the old pizzeria was still there, with its red plastic booths where they had all hung out. Maybe it was gone, like the strip mall, and some new hotel or chain restaurant had been built in its place.
Who knew what would stand, a few years from now, on the site of St. Elizabeth’s school?
This is your last chance to go back, she told herself.
Maybe she really would…
Then she flipped back to the invitation and saw that the reunion wasn’t just for St. Elizabeth’s alumnae. The Western Catholic grads would be there, too.
Jake had gone to Western Catholic. If he were alive, he’d be at the reunion.
She ran down a mental list of his friends, wondering if they’d show. Dean McMichaels, Nick Monticello, Craig Taylor, Chad Belmont…
It would be a kick to see those guys again…some of them, anyway.
Maybe you should go, then.
People would expect her to be there.
Once upon a time, she’d had a hand in everything that went on at St. Elizabeth’s. Once upon a time, she’d been voted the girl most likely to succeed. It was a narrow contest, between her and Kristen.
Lindsay won that one.
Kristen, however, was valedictorian. And that was more important than any silly senior superlative contest.
Lindsay found herself wondering what her old friend was doing these days. She’d heard sketchy details over the years-Kristen was working as a reporter at the Portland Clarion, had married her college sweetheart, had a child. She always signed her Christmas cards-generic, store-bought ones-Love, Kristen, Ross, and Lissa. She never even bothered to write a note.
Lindsay always tried to do that, at least. And it was a time-consuming process. She ordered her elegant holiday greetings by the hundreds, imprinted with her name, and sent them to all her family, clients, and old friends.
Yet other than once a year, she had been lousy at keeping in touch with Kristen and the others, despite their tearful promises made at graduation.
Maybe it’s time to go back, Lindsay told herself, flipping through the papers again, looking for contact information for someone on the reunion committee.
Then she saw it.
The photograph was a familiar one.
A copy of it still sat, in an eight-by-ten frame, on the bookshelf in her parents’ Nevada condo.
This version was smaller, and glossy instead of an elegant matte finish, but there she was: carefree seventeen-year-old Lindsay Farrell, beaming at the camera, blissfully unaware that just months after the photographer snapped his shot, her life would turn upside down.
But this reproduction of her senior portrait now seemed to bear chillingly symbolic testimony to troubles yet to come: her face was marked, from her right temple to the dimple on her lower left cheek, with an angry red slash.
“How do you think you did?”
“Hmm?” Leo Cellamino looked up to see an attractive green-eyed redhead smiling at him. Her name was Sarah Ann, or Sarah Rose-something like that. She’d been sitting in front of him in biology lab all semester, smiling shyly in his direction every once in a while.
Now she’d fallen into step with him on the way out of the lecture hall where they’d just completed their final exam.
Ordinarily, Leo would welcome the attention from a pretty girl, but today, his mind was far away from this Queens college campus. All he wanted to do was get back home to his computer and take another look at that e-mail he’d received late last night.
What if it was no longer saved in his in-box? What if it had somehow evaporated into cyberspace overnight?
I should have printed it out, he thought, frustrated. But at the time, shaken by what he had just read-and seen-he didn’t dare.
He was afraid his kid brother, Mario, would somehow get his hands on it. Most of Leo’s stuff wound up in his brother’s clutches at some point. That was what you got when you shared a room with a nosy twelve-year-old.
But Leo couldn’t afford to move out of their mother’s house. Not if he wanted to complete his college education and make a decent life for himself someday. Anyway, Ma needed him around; he was the man of the house now that Pop had taken off for good.
“Leo…? It’s Leo, isn’t it?”
Startled, he looked up and realized that the girl-Sarah Rose, that’s it-was still walking along beside him.
“Oh…right, it’s Leo.” He flashed her a brief smile, ever the gentleman, as his mother had taught him.
“How’d you do on the exam?” she asked again.
“All right, I guess. How about you?”
“I don’t know…I’m not very good at science. And all that genetics stuff was confusing, don’t you think? Dominant genes, recessive genes…” She shook her head.
Leo could tell her a thing or two about confusing genetics, if he wanted to.
But he didn’t.
It was none of her business that he had grown up the dark-haired, dark-eyed son of blue-eyed, sandy-haired parents of Sicilian decent. That they let him believe he was their biological child until he encountered his first Punnett square in high-school science.
It wasn’t until then that he stumbled across a startling scientific fact: two blue-eyed people couldn’t possibly have a dark-eyed child.
When he confronted his parents with his puzzling find, he half expected them to say that Mr. Davidson, his biology teacher, was wrong. Heck, he expected them to confirm that Gregor Mendel, the father of human genetics, was wrong.
Instead, they told him that he, Leonardo Anthony Cellamino of Queens Boulevard, wasn’t who he thought he was.
He had been adopted as an infant, his mother-not really his mother-told him tearfully, rosary beads tightly clenched in her hand for strength to get through the conversation.
“The doctors had told us we couldn’t have children,” she sobbed. “We were heartbroken.”
“What about Mario, then? How’d you have him?” Leo knew his brother wasn’t adopted; he remembered his mother’s pregnancy, remembered comforting her through her labor pains while his aunt Nita tried to track down his father, who was MIA as usual.
“We never expected Mario to come along. It was some kind of fluke.”
“Fluke?” Leo’s father-not really his father-bellowed. “You call our son a fluke?”
In that moment, Leo realized it wasn’t just his imagination that his father always favored his kid brother. That was because Mario was his biological son. Leo was not.
“He was a miracle,” Betty Cellamino amended. “Not a fluke. We thought God sent us another baby to save our marriage.”
That was pretty funny, in retrospect.
His parents-not really his parents-were divorced not long after Leo graduated from high school. He turned eighteen just in time to become the man of the house, and his father took off for Miami or Fort Lauderdale-somewhere down on Florida’s southern Atlantic coast. Leo didn’t know exactly where Anthony Cellamino was now and he didn’t care; he had no intention of ever seeing him again.
But Ma still cried and prayed every night for his return.
And Mario still called him on the sly-mostly asking for money, Leo supposed. Sometimes Pop sent some cash in an envelope addressed to Mario alone.
Leo tried not to let that bother him. Just like he had tried, for the past few years, not to let the truth about his birth bother him.
But it often nagged at him, like an itchy, aging scab that was still firmly rooted on one edge, and that if touched, would rip open and bleed all over again.
So Leo tried to leave it alone.
That had worked, for the most part…until last night.
The e-mail, with the provocative subject line birth parents, came from an AOL screen name he didn’t recognize: cupid 21486.
Leo opened it after a moment’s hesitation, thinking it was probably spam and wondering why he was bothering.
I have information about your birth parents. If you’re interested in finding them, please reply to this e-mail.
He’d still have thought it was some kind of hoax, except for one thing: a jpeg file was attached. He worried just briefly that it might contain a virus. Then temptation outweighed common sense and he opened it anyway.
He found himself looking at a photograph.
It was a professionally snapped portrait of a beautiful dark-haired girl who appeared to be about Leo’s age now, maybe a little younger. He could tell by her dated clothing and hairstyle that the photo had been taken years ago.
With her coloring, her delicate bone structure, and that distinct dimple in her lower left cheek, she bore such a striking resemblance to Leo himself that she could only be a blood relative.
He had replied to the e-mail, of course.
Thank you for sending the picture. I’m very interested in finding my biological mother and father and I would appreciate any information you might have.
That was late last night.
As of this morning before he left for campus, there had been no reply. But he quickened his pace instinctively now, eager to get back home to his computer.
Sarah Rose kept up with him. “Are you done for the day?”
“With exams, you mean? Yeah.”
“Do you want to grab a cup of coffee or something, then?”
He said it hastily, harshly, almost-and instantly regretted it when he saw the hurt expression on her face.
“I have to be somewhere,” he explained, softening his tone. “Maybe some other time.”
“Sure. Give me your number. I’ll call you.”
She did give it to him…but her expression told him that she doubted he’d dial it.
He doubted it, too.
Then again…he did give her his number when she asked for it.
After all, he and his high-school girlfriend, Elisa, had been broken up for months now-ever since she came home from St. Bonaventure over Christmas break and told him she wanted to see other people.
Which meant she was already seeing other people. More specifically, one other person, Leo suspected.
Turned out he was right.
Oh, well. He and Elisa were mostly a comfortable old habit by that time, anyway. Moving on was the right thing to do.
As for pretty, red-haired, green-eyed Sarah Rose…
Maybe he’d call. Maybe he wouldn’t.
Right now, the only woman on his mind had dark hair and eyes and a dimple to match his own.
“See you,” he told Sarah Rose and hurried toward the subway, unaware that he was being watched from the shadows beside a campus bus shelter.
“No…this is her daughter.”
“Oh. May I please speak to Kristen?” Lindsay held her breath, hoping her old friend was at home. It was around noon in Portland. She had tried the work number first, at the newspaper, only to get her voicemail. She hung up. She couldn’t just leave a message after twenty years.
You did when you called Aurora back, she reminded herself.
But that was different. She couldn’t leave a message about something like this.
“Who’s calling, please?” asked the teenaged voice on the other end of the line, sounding polite, efficient, and bubbly-very much like her mother had twenty years ago.
“It’s an old friend…about the reunion.”
“Okay, hang on,” the voice said politely. There was a clatter, then a bluntly bellowed, “Mom! Phone!”
Lindsay would have smiled if she weren’t still so shaken by the doctored photograph in her hand.
“Hello?” The voice that came on the line was a decidedly grown-up version of the one that had just left it.
There was a gasp on the other end. “Oh my God. I was going to call you later.”
Yeah, sure you were, Lindsay found herself thinking reflexively. She’d heard that before, senior year, when they were both trying halfheartedly to cling to a doomed friendship, pretending they still cared about each other, that they were still making an effort.
Then she reminded herself that this wasn’t high school anymore. Kristen was no longer holding a grudge against her over Jake…she couldn’t be.
Really? Then why did she disfigure your picture?
Lindsay told herself, yet again, that it had to be some kind of accident. Kristen couldn’t possibly be that immature even if she hadn’t gotten over Jake.
Maybe somebody had spilled some red nail polish on Lindsay’s photo, or…
That was why Lindsay had decided to call her old-perhaps former-friend. To find out what was up. To reassure herself that there was nothing sinister behind the red slash.
“Listen,” she began, “I just got the reunion invitation, and for some reason my picture was-”
“You heard about Haylie, right?” Kristen asked simultaneously.
“What?” they both said, after a brief, startled pause.
“Lindsay…your picture was…what were you about to tell me?”
“There was a red mark slashed through it.”
“Across the face, right? I didn’t do it,” Kristen said in a rush.
“The envelope had your name on the return address.”
“I know, I put the packets together, but the picture didn’t come from me. Somebody tampered with the envelopes and put them in. We all got them.”
“Me, you, Rachel, Bella, Aurora, Mandy…and Haylie.”
All our old friends, Lindsay thought incredulously. What was going on?
When she asked Kristen, she said, “We think Haylie sent them. She had just lashed out at all of us at the last reunion meeting.”
“Same old thing. Ian. Jake.”
“Some things never change, apparently. She was still a real nutcase.”
“Did you guys confront her and ask her if she sent those pictures, then?”
“We would have if she hadn’t-”
“What?” Lindsay prodded when Kristen cut herself off.
There was a pause. “So you don’t know?”
“Haylie’s dead, Lindsay.”
Somehow, even now, with years and miles separating her from her old life, her old friends, she was sickened, shocked, at the untimely demise of the girl she once knew. “How…when did it happen?”
“I don’t know exactly when, but the police think it’s been a couple of days at least. She, uh, lived alone, except for a bunch of cats, so nobody found her right away. One of the neighbors noticed a smell…”
“Oh my God.”
“I know. It’s horrible. Lindsay, I’m scared.”
“You’re…scared? Because Haylie died?”
“She didn’t just die. She was murdered-”
“-and the police don’t know who did it.”
Murdered. Just like Jake. Lindsay’s thoughts whirled madly as Kristen’s shocking words sunk in. Somebody killed Haylie? And got away with it?
And now somebody is calling me in the middle of the night, and sending me pictures with my face crossed out…
“They think it might have been a random thing.” Kristen’s voice broke through her frantic thoughts. “It wasn’t the greatest neighborhood, and her apartment had been burglarized…”
“But you don’t think so?”
“I…I don’t know.”
Lindsay pondered that.
“Listen,” Kristen said briskly, “you’re not home, are you?”
“No, I’m in New York,” she replied, before she realized that New York was supposed to be home.
But Kristen was talking about Portland, as if she sensed how Lindsay felt about it even now, after all these years. Home. Portland was home.
“Good. You still live there, right?” When Lindsay murmured an affirmative, Kristen said, “You should stay put, then, Lindsay. Just in case you were thinking of coming back for any reason.”
“I was going to come to the reunion.”
“It’s not until July. Hopefully by then the police will have figured out what’s going on with Haylie’s death. But if I were you, I’d stay as far away from Portland as possible until they find out who did it. I’m not even living at home right now. I’m too scared someone will come after me next.”
“Then…what are you doing there now?”
“We just happened to be here packing up some more stuff because there’s no telling how long we’ll have to be away.”
“Where are you staying?”
“I’m at-” Kristen broke off suddenly.
Then she said, her voice laced with trepidation, “I’m afraid to say over the phone. It might be tapped or something.”
“You’re not serious…are you?”
“Yes, I’m serious. Listen, somebody broke into my house and my car, stole some of my old stuff, and tampered with those reunion invitations…”
“I thought you said it was Haylie.”
“I’m pretty positive it must have been. But…well, what if it wasn’t?”
Lindsay shuddered with renewed consternation about those wee-hour phone calls she’d been getting.
“I guess with Haylie gone, we might never know for sure who sent the pictures,” she said slowly.
But she did know that the phone calls couldn’t have come from her. Not if she had been dead for several days.
“I should go. Somebody’s at the door. But listen, Lindsay, if you need to reach me, just try me at work or use the e-mail address on the reunion invitation.”
“But…what should I do about the picture? Do you think I should call the police here in New York?”
“I don’t think so. I mean, what would they do about it? They’d just think it was some stupid, childish prank. Which it probably was. And Haylie probably did it…”
Lindsay could hear the rumble of a male voice in the background, and Kristen said, “Wait, Linds, hang on a second.”
She found herself swept by nostalgia at the sound of the familiar nickname. What she wouldn’t give, in this moment, to go back to those innocent high-school days-before everything fell apart. Before Jake’s murder, and New Year’s Eve, and Valentine’s Day, and the baby…
But there was no going back. Especially now.
Jake was dead, and now Haylie was dead, too. Murdered.
“Lindsay?” Kristen was abruptly back on the line, her friend’s formal name back on her lips. “Ross said a couple of detectives just got here and they want to talk to me about Haylie. I’ve got to go.”
“Why do they want to talk to you?”
“I don’t know…because of the picture? Because we were friends years ago? Because I just saw her?”
“Oh, right. You said she came to the reunion committee planning meeting. So she was still spouting off about Ian and Jake?”
“Still. After all these years.”
Lindsay considered that. “You don’t think her death has anything to do with-”
“I don’t know what to think, Lindsay. All I know is that I’m going to be really careful until the police figure out who did this. And you should be, too. I know you probably feel safe in New York, but you never know, even there.”
“Right,” Lindsay agreed absently, thinking about the phone calls, wishing she could tell Kristen-tell someone-about them.
But that would mean revealing that she’d had the baby.
Maybe I should…especially now. Maybe the calls are connected to Haylie’s death. Or Jake’s. Or both. Maybe everything is connected. Maybe I’m not dealing with just a crank caller, but a killer.
“Kristen,” she heard herself say impetuously.
“Yeah?” Kristen sounded impatient; Lindsay heard someone talking in the background on her end again.
The moment, the impulse, were lost.
“Never mind. I’ll let you go. Just be careful, okay?”
“You, too. And listen, quickly, Aurora is supposed to be in New York City sometime this month for a mother-daughter weekend with her oldest-that’s her wedding present.”
“Aurora got married again?”
That probably shouldn’t have been surprising, considering that she’d wed her high-school sweetheart not long after they’d graduated. Those marriages rarely lasted-but Lindsay assumed that if anyone could make it work, it would be Aurora and Eddie.
“Are you kidding? Aurora’s marriage is still going strong,” Kristen said with a snort. “But their daughter just got married and now she’s expecting a baby. Aurora’s wedding gift to her was a girls’ weekend in New York, which they were going to do this fall. But now she wants to do it before her daughter is too pregnant to get around.”
“Wow,” Lindsay murmured. “That’s hard to believe.”
“A lot of things that have happened are hard to believe. So…should I tell Aurora to look you up when she’s there?”
“Yes…make sure that you do.” It would be good to see her, Lindsay thought, suddenly longing for her old friend’s zany sense of humor.
“Just watch your step, Lindsay,” Kristen advised her again. “Whatever you do, wherever you go…watch your step.”
With that final warning, the call was disconnected and Lindsay’s pathway to the past was severed once again.
Close up, in person, the boy looked just like his mother…but not much like his father at all, she noted in mild surprise, stealing a furtive glance over the top of the open New York Post in her hands.
They were on the eastbound number seven train that ran on elevated tracks above Queens Boulevard. At this time of the afternoon, it wasn’t very crowded. Rush hour wouldn’t begin for another hour.
There were plenty of seats, and she had chosen one diagonally across from his, facing him. She wanted to get a good look at the son of Lindsay Farrell and Jake Marcott.
Yes, he looked very much like Lindsay, with hair and eyes more black than brown, and features that were almost too delicate for a man. All except his jawline. His was squared off and rugged where Lindsay’s was gently rounded.
But Jake’s jaw hadn’t been that pronounced, and there was a deep cleft in the boy’s chin. Jake had had none. Jake’s hair had been a lighter shade of brown. And he had been broad where this boy, his son, was lean and lanky. Yes, they were both tall-but Jake had towered at six-four in his socks. This boy was, by her estimation, about six-one.
So? He didn’t have to look like his father, or have his father’s height and build.
But she was expecting to be reminded of her late nemesis when she came face-to-face with his son, and that hadn’t happened.
No, instead, she was reminded solely of that bitch Lindsay.
The train jerked to a stop. The conductor announced the station: Eighty-Second Street in Jackson Heights. An elderly Asian woman, who had been dozing beside Leo, jumped to her feet and headed for the door rustling several white plastic shopping bags.
Something-an apple-dropped from one and rolled across the floor.
Leo jumped up, snatched it, and handed it to her with a fleeting smile before she darted from the train with a muttered thanks.
There and gone in a flash, it had revealed a familiar dimple, she realized, pretending to be engrossed in her newspaper as he settled back into his seat and the train rumbled on.
And there was something else…something familiar about Leo’s smile.
Yes, in the unique way that he tilted his head, curved his sensitive lips, and bared a row of even white teeth for a mere instant before resuming his straight face…
Leo reminded her of someone from the past.
Someone other than Lindsay.
And it wasn’t Jake.
She just couldn’t put her finger on who it was…
Oh, well. It would probably come to her eventually, she thought.
For now, she’d just keep an eye on him…and on his mother. It was almost Lindsay’s turn…
But not yet.
Not until I’ve had my fill.
It was still too much fun to taunt Lindsay Farrell, to imagine the nightmares those late-night phone calls must inspire, to imagine her growing trepidation as she comprehended that somebody was in on her deep, dark secret.
Did she realize yet that somebody wanted to watch her suffer, see her die?
She’d definitely become aware of that in time. But not yet.
The train jolted around a curve in the track and the power shorted out.
Under the unexpected cover of darkness, she took the luxury of smiling to herself, thinking of Lindsay’s impending demise. She relished the knowledge that she alone was aware of Lindsay’s fate. She alone was in control of it.
Oh, yes. This was more fun than she’d had in years.
When the lights flickered back on a moment later, her face was carefully masked in neutrality once again.
“Why did you leave me? You have to pay for what you did.”
Terror pulsed through Lindsay’s veins as she faced the shadowy stranger who held a loaded gun in two outstretched hands, pointed right at her.
“Please…please don’t hurt me.”
“Sorry, but you have to pay, Mommy.”
The stranger stepped into the pool of light and she saw that he was an adult-sized, squinty-eyed, red-faced newborn with tufts of black hair.
There was a shrill ringing sound then, and her creepy tormentor abruptly evaporated.
A dream. It was only a dream, Lindsay realized, sitting up.
Yes, and it was morning. Sunlight streamed through the sheer curtains that covered her window, an eastern exposure high on the thirty-fourth floor.
She reached for her alarm clock before realizing that the ringing was coming from the telephone.
Her stomach roiled as she picked up the receiver. It wasn’t the middle of the night, but it wasn’t a reasonable hour yet, either.
Was she in for another eerie prank phone call? A couple of days had passed now since she’d had one, but it was taking her a long time to fall asleep every night. She kept tossing and turning, her body tensed, as if waiting for the inevitable call.
Now, as she pressed the Talk button and said a tentative hello, she braced herself all over again.
She could hear only heavy breathing on the other end of the line.
“Stop calling me,” she said tightly, clenching the phone.
The voice was masculine. Not an unearthly falsetto.
“I’m sorry…who is this?” she asked quickly, glancing at the clock again as she stood up. It was just past seven. Who would call at this hour?
A client might…but none of them had her home number, thank God.
So who was on the line?
She lowered the receiver to check the Caller ID window.
“You don’t know me,” the voice was saying when she raised the phone to her ear again, “but my name is Leo Cellamino, and I live in Queens…”
Her gaze automatically shifted to the window. From it, she could see the East River and the sprawling rooftops of the outer borough beyond. The caller lived there, in Queens.
You don’t know me…
So who was he?
Oh my God.
Somehow, she knew. Before he even said it, she knew.
It was partially because of the voice-the voice was vaguely familiar.
But it wasn’t just that.
Maybe it was some long-suppressed maternal instinct as well. Some connection that had been forged twenty years ago, and never fully detached.
In any case, she knew, before he said it, that she was talking to her son.
She sank down onto the edge of the bed again as his next words confirmed her suspicion.
“I think you might be my birth mother.”
Leo heard her gasp on the other end of the line.
He shouldn’t have called.
He should have just gone over there in person. He had her address.
But when he’d Googled it, he had seen that it was a fancy high-rise near Sutton Place. There was undoubtedly a doorman. It wasn’t as though Leo could walk right up to her door, knock, and introduce himself. And explaining the situation to a uniformed sentry in an effort to see her in person seemed much too awkward.
So he opted to call.
From a pay phone, because he didn’t want his mother to overhear him talking to her from home, and because his mother paid his cell phone bill and he didn’t want her questioning any unfamiliar Manhattan phone numbers.
And now here he was, with his biological mother on the line, trying to figure out what to say next.
She relieved him of that duty, sounding dazed as she asked, “How did you find me?”
“Someone e-mailed me the information. About you, and my father.”
“I know he died,” Leo assured her swiftly. “I saw the articles.”
He hesitated, struck by a terrible thought. What if she didn’t know? About Jake Marcott? And the murder?
“From the Portland papers,” he said gently. “I got some links in that e-mail, and I read them all. You knew…right?”
“About the e-mail? No, I have no idea what you’re-”
“About Jake Marcott. You know…that he’s…”
“Dead. I knew. I was the one who found him,” she said, and he could hear the stark pain in her voice, could imagine it on her face.
A face that looked so like his own, even now.
He knew that because along with her contact information and the links to the newspaper archives, he had received another jpeg attachment. It was a digital photo, a little fuzzy and snapped from some distance. It showed a woman who was easily recognizable as the girl he’d seen in the other picture. She had the same dark hair, the same delicate beauty, the same slender build.
She was walking down a Manhattan street-he knew it was Manhattan because he could see the subway entrance disappearing into the sidewalk in the background, though he couldn’t make out the sign above it.
She wasn’t looking at the camera, which suggested she had no idea her photo was being taken…
Which gave him the creeps, really.
He was fascinated by the shot, though. He’d studied it for days, memorizing every detail, trying to work up the nerve to get in touch.
He finally had, and here she was, Lindsay Farrell-my mother?-on the other end of the line.
“I didn’t know you were the one who found Jake’s body,” he said, trying to remember the details from the articles. Jake’s body. It sounded so impersonal. And it was…except that the stranger in question, Jake, was his father.
“I just knew it had been a friend of his,” Leo rambled on, “but it didn’t say who.”
“The paper couldn’t print my name. I was underage then. Seventeen.”
“You were eighteen by the time you had me in August, though. Right?”
Not at first.
Then, so softly he had to strain to hear it, she said, “Right.”
Thud. His heart seemed to split in two and land in the soles of his feet.
So she really was his mother, and his father really was dead. As badly as he wanted to find his mother, to think that Lindsay Farrell was her, he hadn’t wanted to believe the other part. About Jake.
There went his fantasy of playing catch with a man who wouldn’t check his watch impatiently and say he had to go after the first couple of tosses.
There went his ideal father, someone with patience and attention and a heart full of love for his son.
There went another dad, gone, poof! Just like that. Just like Anthony Cellamino.
It wasn’t fair.
“Leo…did you say that was your name?”
It wasn’t fair, but she was still there. Lindsay. Sounding tentative. Vulnerable.
As tentative and vulnerable as Leo himself was feeling.
“Yes,” he replied somewhat hoarsely, “that’s my name.”
“Are you happy?”
That was a strange question. He didn’t know how to answer it.
“Happy?” he echoed stupidly. “What do you mean?”
“Just…are you happy?”
“You mean right now?”
“I mean in general. Your life. Has it been happy?”
He thought back to the time before his father left. And even about some times after he was gone.
“Mostly,” he admitted. “It’s been mostly happy. But there’s been sad stuff, too.”
“Everyone’s life is like that. But it wasn’t bad, right? Nobody beat you up, or starved you, or anything like that, right?”
She sighed. “I just want to know that I did the right thing. I want to know that you were raised by someone who loved you with all their heart.”
“My mother did. Does,” he amended, before he remembered that Betty Cellamino wasn’t really his mother.
No, but she loved him with all her heart. That wasn’t in dispute here, and never would be.
“What about your father?”
Leo’s thoughts darkened at the question. “He’s gone.”
“Gone? You mean he died?”
“No.” Worse. “He left.”
Then, “I’m sorry.”
“I always thought-I mean, since I found out I was adopted a few years ago-I thought that maybe…” Leo trailed off.
“Forget it. It’s stupid.”
“No, tell me. What were you thinking?”
“I had this fantasy of finding my dad…you know, my birth dad. And he would be this great guy. And he would be in my life. For good, you know? But that’s not going to happen now, so…it’s stupid.”
“I mean, he’s dead,” Leo continued, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. “And my other father is as good as dead. So there go all my options. I guess I’m on my own, where dads are concerned.”
Until she said, so faintly that he could barely hear her, “Maybe not.”
Lindsay hung up the phone with a trembling hand and a wildly beating heart.
Why did I say it?
Why to him, of all people?
Why now, of all times?
But the answer was clear, really.
Because he, of all people, deserved to know the truth.
And because now, of all times, he was reaching out to her.
That was either a monumental coincidence or a monumental sign that somebody was manipulating fate.
Leo said he didn’t know who sent the e-mail that led him to her.
But when he mentioned the screen name, it made her blood run cold.
Jake had been felled by an arrow through the heart, on Valentine’s Day. 2-14-86.
That screen name couldn’t be a coincidence.
Nor could the timing of the e-mails sent to Leo.
The only saving grace, as far as Lindsay was concerned, was that the mysterious person behind them believed Jake was the father of her child.
Still, whoever it was had found out, somehow, about the pregnancy. It might be only a matter of time before they also found out the truth about the father and contacted him as well.
I’d rather he heard it directly from me. He deserves that.
He deserved a lot of things she hadn’t given him.
Because I couldn’t.
Not back then.
Who knew where he was now? Probably married, with a family.
Or maybe not.
He never did seem like he’d turn out to be the marrying type, she thought, remembering his rakish grin…his rakish ways.
Kind of like Jake-only Jake was darker beneath the surface. Much.
But he hid it well. People thought Jake Marcott was this great guy beneath that devil-may-care attitude.
I even convinced myself of that, for the longest time. But I knew, deep down, there was more to that bad-boy demeanor than just image…
Just as she knew that there was more-much more-to the other bad boy in her past-the one who stole her heart on that long-ago New Year’s Eve, then vanished from her life.
Whose fault was that? an inner voice demanded.
Both of ours, she told it stubbornly.
Then she amended, maybe it was mostly mine.
She just couldn’t handle what she’d done. She wasn’t the kind of girl who had a one-night stand with a guy she barely knew. And she had no excuse, other than the fact that she was feeling down that night, still trying to get over Jake, knowing he’d be there, probably with somebody else.
It was just a rebound thing. At least, that was what she’d told herself then. That was her excuse.
Yet she still remembered every detail about that night. She remembered looking up, and there he was. They talked, and she was wildly attracted to him…and she sensed that it was mutual. And she left the party with him.
For once in her life, she allowed herself to do exactly what she wanted to do.
Then guilt-good old-fashioned Catholic guilt-took over.
She couldn’t deal, so she walked away.
Of course, the next time she spotted him, he was with another girl. That wasn’t surprising. He was a ladies’ man. Everyone knew that.
For all she knew, he still was.
Or maybe happily married with a bunch of kids.
But after all these years of wondering about him, she was going to find him. She was going to drag him back into her life.
She had no choice.
The tide had turned. Another classmate had been murdered.
Maybe it was random-it probably was-but maybe it wasn’t.
Maybe the phone calls were just a prank-but maybe they weren’t.
Lindsay was no longer frightened just for herself and for her friends back home. She was frightened for her child.
It made no difference that she hadn’t seen him since the day he was born, that he was somebody else’s responsibility.
Leo’s adoptive mother didn’t know what she knew.
Leo’s adoptive mother didn’t know that her child might be in danger.
Only I know that.
The time had come at last for Lindsay to unburden herself of the weighty secret she had carried for twenty years.
Of course, she hadn’t told Leo the whole truth on the phone just now. She’d only revealed that Jake Marcott hadn’t been his father.
“Who was he, then?” Leo asked breathlessly.
“I can’t tell you…not yet. Not until I tell him.”
“He doesn’t know about me?”
“No,” she admitted around a lump in her throat. “He doesn’t. I’m sorry.”
“What do you think he’ll say?”
“I have no idea.”
Now, with a trembling finger, she pushed three numbers on the telephone pad. 4-1-1.
But I’m about to find out.
“Telephone.” Allison held out the receiver in a manicured hand.
“For you.” She smiled briefly, coldly, then returned to the bedroom where, presumably, she was packing the last of her things. She had been up at five a.m. to get it done.
She was moving from his four-bedroom Colonial in a gated shore community to a small garden apartment in Stamford. The complex had a pool and a gym, she had told him, as if she were trying to convince him-and herself-that she couldn’t wait to get there.
He didn’t believe that for a minute.
He just wished he believed she was as disappointed to be leaving their failed relationship behind as she was to be leaving his house, which had a beautifully landscaped private pool off the back terrace and a home gym on the third floor.
He had been trying to stay out of Allison’s way, puttering around his well-equipped gourmet kitchen throwing together a spinach and goat cheese omelet, pretending-to himself, and to her-that he was sorry she was moving out.
But he wasn’t.
The day she’d moved in with him in January, he’d known it was a mistake.
Maybe if it had been a different day-any other day of the year, really-he wouldn’t have felt that way.
But it was January 1. Like some cosmic coincidence.
Oh, come on…people always moved on the first, didn’t they? It was the first day of the month, when new leases kicked in. Besides, January 1 was the beginning of the year. Traditionally the day to make a fresh start.
How ironic, then, that twenty years ago, January 1 marked the end of something that held so much promise for him.
It had barely begun.
He and Lindsay Farrell had merely spent a couple of hours together, ducking out of that New Year’s Eve party long before midnight.
Nobody saw them leave.
And nobody would have guessed they’d left together, heading out into the icy rain hand in hand.
He, the womanizing bad boy, and Lindsay, the beautiful heiress whose heart had belonged to Jake Marcott for as long as anyone could remember.
The two of them had broken up just before Christmas. He had assumed she was still licking her wounds, that his private fantasies about her could never become a reality.
But their eyes met that night, and for the first time ever, she seemed to really see him-and not just that. She seemed to see beyond what everyone else saw.
And something just…clicked between them. Across a crowded basement rec room. It was like something out of an old John Hughes movie.
They didn’t even spend all that much time talking before he asked her if she wanted to get out of there.
He never expected her to say yes.
He never expected her to agree to go to his house, where his parents were out, of course. Not just because it was New Year’s Eve, but because they went out all the time. He was usually alone when he was home. For once, he was glad of it.
When he took Lindsay in his arms, he never expected her to kiss him back. He’d imagined it, of course-so many times that the sensation of her lips beneath his almost seemed familiar.
There she was, just like he had dreamed: running her hands over his bare shoulders beneath his T-shirt, wantonly pressing her soft flesh against his hard angles, throwing her head back when he kissed her neck, kissed her collarbone, found his way to her bare breast.
At first he thought she might have forgotten that it was him, and not Jake.
But he looked up to find her gazing at him, staring tenderly into his eyes, and that was all the encouragement he needed. He dared to keep going, further and further, lost in the familiar, overwhelming throes of teenaged passion.
But that night, in his boyhood bedroom, he found himself venturing into uncharted territory.
Lindsay Farrell was different from the other girls he’d had. She made him feel different. She made him feel, period.
It wasn’t his first time. Far from it.
But it was his first time with emotion-real emotion, as powerful as physical sensation, and then some.
When his body joined with hers, their eyes locked, he nearly cried at the intensity of it.
But of course, he held back.
Boys didn’t cry. His father had reminded him of that fact often enough through the years.
You have to toughen up, his father used to say when he was very young, at the mercy of Shane and Devin, his two bullying older brothers. Toughen up, son, or the world will eat you alive.
Boys didn’t cry.
Men didn’t cry, either.
Looking back at that New Year’s Eve, he always knew that was the night he became a man. The night he first fell in love.
January 1 was the day he realized that some things weren’t meant to be.
She left in the wee hours of the new year, whispering that she had to get home. She didn’t look at him when she said it.
She never looked at him again.
It was as though she was ashamed of what had happened between them. As though she had remembered he wasn’t good enough for someone like her.
He never got the chance to tell her that he had been infatuated with her from afar for a long time, from the first time he spotted her at a Western Catholic dance-on Jake Marcott’s arm, of course.
Yes, he had been infatuated, but now he really loved her. Only her.
It didn’t matter. He was who he was, he couldn’t change his reputation or his financial and social status. Not then, anyway.
He and Lindsay Farrell weren’t meant to be. She left, and he wanted to cry, but he didn’t.
He soon heard, through the grapevine, that she was still in love with Jake, that Jake was still in love with her. That Jake, in fact, was dating one of her best friends, Kristen Daniels, just to make her jealous-and it was working.
That alone was enough to make him back off. He didn’t compete for girls. They had always been drawn to him, drawn to his dark hair and eyes, his lean, lanky build, his quick grin.
Ironically, one of the girls who popped up on his radar in Lindsay’s wake had been Bella Marcott, Jake’s sister. He’d told himself he’d have been attracted to her even if she didn’t go to St. Elizabeth’s. Even if she weren’t a good friend of Lindsay’s. She was cute and quick-witted-the kind of girl who always had a sharp comeback. He liked that. He liked her-but of course, he didn’t love her.
He loved Lindsay.
And when he was with Bella, Lindsay was usually in the vicinity. He could sneak glances at her when she wasn’t looking. Bella caught him a few times, though. She seemed to shrug it off. Most girls did.
Everyone knew he wasn’t the steady boyfriend type; there were plenty of girls in his life back then. Always had been.
And now another one bites the dust, he thought, watching Allison disappear into the bedroom without a backward glance.
Easy come, easy go.
Yeah, and his life had become a series of bad cliches.
Become? It always was.
With a sigh, he tossed aside the knife he’d been using to chop the onions for the omelet and lifted the phone to his ear.
Stunned, he listened to the response-and heard the voice he’d been longing to hear for twenty years.
Her voice. Uttering his name.
“Is this Wyatt Goddard?”
She frowned in surprise at what she had just overheard. Why on earth would Lindsay Farrell be contacting him after all these years?
After all these years?
Come on. Why would she contact him ever?
It was hard to imagine that someone like her had ever crossed paths with someone like him.
He wasn’t from the wrong side of the tracks, exactly…but pretty darned close.
He had been kicked out of two Catholic schools-once for smoking, and once for truancy-and his parents were both alcoholics. Not that those things made him an instant loser.
Far from it, actually. Wyatt Goddard was popular well beyond the boundaries of Washington High. He always had more girlfriends than Oregon had bridges…and Lindsay Farrell always had a boyfriend.
Well, she did until a few months before Jake died, anyway.
As for Wyatt, yes, he was popular-but a little scary, too, as far as the girls of St. Elizabeth’s were concerned.
There was something intriguing, enigmatic, even, about him-a series of contradictions.
He was athletic, a track star-as well as a pack-a-day smoker.
He had a reputation as a loner-still, there he was at every party, with girls hanging all over him.
He had been kicked out of two Catholic schools, but he got decent grades-and he continued to dutifully attend Sunday Mass, usually solo.
His family was lower middle class, if anything-yet he drove a BMW convertible.
He always wore the same clothes: well-worn blue jeans, plain T-shirts, and low-heeled boots…even though his mother was a clerk in the young men’s department at Nordstrom and his father worked at Nike. Sunglasses, too, most of the time-even on cloudy days.
He occasionally revealed a sharply honed sense of humor, but he rarely smiled. When he did, it was there and gone, like a flash of summer lightning that came out of nowhere and left you wondering if it was ever there at all…
She knew it seemed familiar.
Leo Cellamino-who looked nothing like his supposed father, Jake Marcott-happened to have precisely the same smile as Wyatt Goddard.
She hadn’t been able to put her finger on who he reminded her of at the time, but now she knew.
Meanwhile, here was the esteemed Lindsay Farrell, placing a call to Wyatt out of the blue, never stopping to consider that her telephone might be tapped…even after Kristen’s warning.
This, she realized, listening intently for whatever was to come, should be interesting.
An unexpected bonus, if her hunch was correct.
“It’s Lindsay,” she managed to say, sounding deceptively levelheaded when her brain felt as though it were about to explode.
“Lindsay Farrell. From Portland. St. Elizabeth’s,” she prodded when the man on the other end of the line didn’t react.
“I know.” She heard him exhale loudly, as though he were puffing the air through his cheeks. “I know who you are.”
No, you don’t, she found herself thinking. You know who I was…not who I am now.
And I never knew you at all.
“You’re in Connecticut now, huh?” she asked, still marveling at the coincidence that Wyatt was living right here on the East Coast, in Fairfield County, less than fifty miles away.
Coincidence? There were over twenty million people in this metropolitan area. That they had both ended up here wasn’t nearly as coincidental as it would be if they both lived on some remote island.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve lived all over the place, but I’ve been on the East Coast a few years now.”
“What…what do you do?”
“I’m self-employed,” he said briefly, as if that explained everything-or anything at all. “You?”
“In New York.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes…how did you know?” she asked, wishing her stomach wouldn’t flutter at the prospect that he’d kept track of her.
“Caller ID,” he said simply. “I just checked it and recognized the 212 area code.”
So much for his keeping track of her. She was lucky he even remembered her name.
Lindsay struggled to pull herself together, to remember what it was, exactly, she had just rehearsed saying to him, before she actually dialed.
Wyatt, you should know that I got pregnant the night we were together and I gave birth to your son. I came to New York and had him, then gave him up for adoption because I thought he could have a better life that way. And now he’s found me…and he wants to find you.
Yes, that was what she was going to say. It had seemed best to go the straightforward route.
Before this moment, anyway.
Now she found herself acutely aware that she couldn’t go around dropping bombshells like that over the telephone. Not when she was less than an hour away from the person whose life would be forever altered by her news.
She had to deliver a bombshell like that in person.
“I need to see you,” she hastily told Wyatt Goddard, trying not to wonder if the woman who had answered the phone was his wife. It didn’t matter. This wasn’t about him. About the two of them. It was about their son.
“Did you say you want to see me?” he echoed, sounding surprised…and intrigued.
“No. I said I need to see you. As soon as possible, actually.”
She expected him to argue.
He said, “I’ll come to New York.”
Driving down I-95 along Long Island Sound in morning rush-hour traffic, Wyatt Goddard was careful not to let the Pagani Zonda’s speedometer rise past eighty. He didn’t want to get another ticket and wind up in traffic school again.
Sure, he always drove fast-speed was as much a fact of Wyatt’s life as his good looks and fat bank account were.
Today, however, he was tempted to raise the velocity not as much out of habit as out of anticipation.
But a traffic stop would only delay the payoff.
The payoff: after two decades, he was going to see Lindsay Farrell again.
He had dressed carefully, formally for the occasion. Sure, he still favored jeans and T-shirts in his everyday life. But he now had a closet full of well-cut designer suits, custom-made shirts, Italian silk ties, shiny leather shoes, and sunglasses that cost almost as much as his first car did.
It had taken no time at all this morning to go from the boxer shorts he’d slept in to the elegant attire he now wore. His dark hair, still damp from his shower, was cut much shorter than it had been back in high school, but he still had a full head of it. Luckily for him, receding hairlines didn’t run in the family. Even his father had aged well, despite his years of hard living.
And so had Wyatt. Nobody he met ever realized he was closing in on forty. He forgot, most of the time, himself. The only hint of his age, whenever he looked in the mirror, were the faint beginnings of crinkly lines around the corners of his eyes.
At the moment, they were concealed behind a pair of black designer sunglasses.
No, the sun wasn’t shining brightly today-not yet, anyway. But he had donned the glasses despite the overcast sky, the way he used to back in high school. Back then, he used them as an impenetrable fort that could keep the world at bay.
Not anymore. He didn’t have to hide anymore.
And he wasn’t hiding from Lindsay-not really. But the glasses would give him an advantage. He wouldn’t have to look her in the eye until he’d had a chance to get used to the fact that he was with her again. Until he figured out how he felt about that-and had a chance to look at her and maybe figure out how she felt about him, and why she had called him so abruptly.
He supposed she was going to tell him. She’d said she had to talk to him about something. What could it be?
That she had crashed into his world out of the blue for the second time in his life seemed fitting. He only hoped that this time, she wouldn’t blow right on out of it again.
Maybe she won’t. We’re both adults now.
Right. They had that in common, if nothing else, he reminded himself wryly. That and, oh yeah, irony of ironies: money.
During their brief conversation, she had acted clueless about his life now-and he had pretended to be just as clueless about hers.
Of course he knew she was an event planner in Manhattan-a successful one, judging by her address and her client list.
Keeping track of her was simple, despite the fact that Wyatt’s parents were long deceased, his brothers had relocated, and he’d lost touch with his other hometown connections when he left.
Google was a handy invention. Plug in someone’s name and poof! There they were: name, location, occupation…
He only wished there had been a photo of Lindsay on the Web, but there never was when he checked.
And he checked often.
Well, now you don’t need a photo. Now you’ll get to see her for yourself.
His right foot pressed down on the accelerator before he remembered to lighten up.
This wasn’t a race. After twenty years, he could wait another half hour to see her.
Yeah, sure you can.
He forced himself to steer his way into the right lane, allowing the luxury sports car to languish behind a relatively slow-moving double semi.
Why did she call him? What did she want? And in person, no less.
Maybe she was interested in him now that she’d found out that he could now buy and sell her old man-and Farrell Timber-from here to the West Coast and back.
She wouldn’t be the first opportunist from his past to resurface.
Then again, Lindsay had never struck him as a gold-digger.
Come on…she didn’t have to be.
She had her own money, plenty of it. Everybody in Portland knew that money grew on the Farrell family tree.
Anyway, information about Wyatt wasn’t readily available on the Internet. He was a silent partner in the business, importing exotic luxury cars for high-profile clients.
Cars had always been his thing, even back in high school.
That was how he first noticed Lindsay, in fact. He’d turned his head to admire a sleek black Porsche that had pulled up in front of church one Sunday morning before Mass. Then she’d emerged from the backseat, and he was instantly more captivated by her than the car. Which was saying a lot.
In those days he worked his ass off, holding three part-time jobs to save enough for his used BMW. There were plenty of days when he got home at three a.m. after washing dishes at a local restaurant, too exhausted to wake up for school the next morning. You miss one too many days, and you’re expelled.
And once you’ve been expelled from one school, the next one has a zero-tolerance policy. Get caught having a cigarette on school grounds, and you’re out. No excuses accepted, no questions asked.
Of course college was beyond his reach anyway, so he didn’t worry much about his academic record. After graduating from Washington High, he found his way into automobile sales-first in Portland, then Indianapolis, then Daytona. Race cars.
From there, he got into luxury imports, found his way up the East Coast through a series of stepping stones, and here he was. Still working his ass off.
But the reward now was much greater. He was wealthy, living among blue bloods who made Lindsay’s privileged family look like paupers.
It wasn’t about money, though. Not for Wyatt.
And it wasn’t about Lindsay rejecting him all those years ago because he wasn’t good enough.
It wasn’t even about his parents, who never believed in him, or his brothers, who didn’t either-until he sent them each a Jaguar for Christmas a few years back. Of course Shane promptly sold his to keep his L.A. townhouse from going into foreclosure, and Devin totaled his during an icy Montana rain that spring.
Oh, well. Let bygones be bygones, Wyatt figured. No need to hold grudges.
If Wyatt Goddard ever had anything to prove, it was to himself.
He should have been satisfied now, a bon vivant living life on his own terms.
But he figured he was as close to satisfied as he was ever going to get on his own.
Sure, something was missing. Something he couldn’t even put his finger on, most days.
Today, however, he could.
Maybe because Allison had moved out.
More likely because Lindsay had contacted him.
No, she wasn’t the thing that was missing, per se…
It was just that hearing from her reminded him-far more than Allison’s departure had-that he was alone.
Alone again, alone always…
There were plenty of people in his life, but he held them at arm’s length, the way he always had. It was his nature. In his relationships with women, with family, with friends and colleagues.
If he didn’t let them in, he didn’t have to push them out-or worse, let them out when they wanted to leave.
He didn’t have to take Psych 101 to know that it was a defense mechanism, honed by years of being a latchkey kid with parents who were absent even when they were physically there. He had long ago forgiven both of them, quite some time before he found himself at their consecutive deathbeds, keeping vigil, holding it together while his older brothers fell apart and stayed away. His father went first: cirrhosis of the liver. No surprise. His mother followed within a year: emphysema. No surprise there, either.
Wyatt had long since quit smoking, and he never touched a drop of liquor. Never did drugs, either, not even pot. Not even when he ran around with that crowd back in school.
No, he was an expert at always remaining in control…
Even at high speed.
He checked the rearview mirror, glanced over his shoulder, then flicked on his turn signal and swerved left.
Then he allowed his foot to sink onto the accelerator, gunning the sports car down the highway toward New York, and Lindsay.
This was going to be tricky.
She couldn’t help but wish Lindsay and Wyatt were going to meet at Lindsay’s apartment so that she could easily eavesdrop in the comfort of her Lexington Avenue hotel room a few blocks away.
But when Wyatt said he was coming to New York right away, Lindsay immediately suggested meeting in a public place.
She didn’t say it that way, of course.
When he asked, “Where do you live?” she replied immediately, and nervously, “Oh, I’ll just meet you somewhere. I was going out to run some errands on the way to work, so…”
Errands? On the way to work?
No, you weren’t, Lindsay. You made that up-why? So that you wouldn’t have to meet Wyatt Goddard in your apartment?
She could think of just two reasons a woman wouldn’t want to be alone with a man. One, because she was afraid he might hurt her.
Two, because she was afraid he might make a move on her.
With Wyatt Goddard, either scenario was a possibility.
Not that he had ever hurt someone, to her knowledge. But there always was an air of danger about him.
In fact, to her own private amusement, his name came up a few times in the wake of Jake’s murder-as a suspect.
Not officially, though the police did question him. But they questioned everyone who had been at the dance that night. Methodically. Taking more time with some kids-like Lindsay, who had found him, and Kristen, who had been his date-than with others.
Wyatt was never an official suspect, but there was plenty of talk, particularly among Jake’s friends, that he could have done it. Mostly because he was an outsider, never one of them. And because he had been there that night, with Jake’s sister.
Of course, she kept her distance from him after that.
Pretty much everyone did.
Then again, they all kept their distance from each other, too, their close-knit group hopelessly frayed as graduation loomed.
By that July, everyone had gone their separate ways.
This July, they were planning to come together again at last before the old school was destroyed.
But some of them wouldn’t live to see that day.
And those who did would be forever haunted by all that had gone before.
Lindsay Farrell would be part of the former group.
She hadn’t yet decided where Wyatt Goddard was going to wind up now that he was back on the scene.
She’d just have to wait and see what happened between him and Lindsay.
They were meeting just down this next block, in a large, popular coffee shop Lindsay had suggested. It would probably be crowded at this hour of the morning.
Crowded enough that no one would give a second glance to a frumpy, heavyset blonde dining solo.
But too crowded, she saw in dismay as she arrived in the doorway, for her to possibly land a seat anywhere near Lindsay and Wyatt.
There they were, greeting each other right now at a small booth near the back, surrounded by other booths and tables, all of them occupied.
Lindsay she had already glimpsed many times these last few days, having kept her under close surveillance. She had been seated when Wyatt arrived, her back to the door.
Now, after they had exchanged a brief, awkward grasp of each other’s arms-which wasn’t a hug, but wasn’t anything else, either-Wyatt sat down facing the door, and she did a double take.
She hadn’t seen him in twenty years.
If she weren’t looking for him, expecting to see him there, it would have taken her a while to recognize him.
He was still tall, dark, and handsome. More so than ever, in fact.
But there was a sophistication about him that had never been there before. He wore a dark suit, white shirt, and tie-obviously expensive, even from here.
Even if she were able to sidle into the vicinity-confident they wouldn’t recognize her between the wig, the padding, and the glasses-she wouldn’t be able to hear what they were saying. It was much too loud in here: chattering voices, clattering silverware and plates, jaunty Greek music playing in the background.
Disappointed, she turned and left the coffee shop, realizing she’d just have to piece it all together later.
There he was.
Right in front of her.
Looking at her, presumably, from behind the dark glasses that shielded his eyes.
Touching her-his hands on her lower arms in a brief grasp-but that was all.
And that’s good, Lindsay told herself, trying not to be disappointed that he didn’t initiate a hug or kiss. That would have been too awkward. It wasn’t as though they were officially long-lost friends-or long-lost anything.
“You look really good, Wyatt.”
Why did I say that? she wondered on the heels of her impromptu comment as they both settled into the booth-she for the second time.
I said it because it’s true, for one thing. He does look really good.
Great, in fact.
She never in a million years expected Wyatt Goddard to show up dressed like a successful businessman, cleanshaven below his sunglasses, his black hair attractively cut with a bristly top that seemed to beg her fingers to spike it further.
Was he a successful businessman?
He must be successful at something, living where he does. The Fairfield County shore towns weren’t affordable otherwise.
“You look pretty good yourself, Lindsay.”
Dammit, she could feel her cheeks growing hot at the innocuous compliment.
Or maybe it wasn’t so innocuous.
She looked up to see that he had removed his black shades and was looking at her as though…
Well, as though he hadn’t forgotten what had happened between them that New Year’s Eve.
She hadn’t, either. Not for a second.
But not, apparently, for the same reason as him.
Oh, she definitely remembered what it had been like-Wyatt Goddard making love to her.
You don’t forget your first time.
But she had a feeling she wouldn’t have forgotten Wyatt even if he had been her hundredth lover, or her thousandth.
How ironic that after going out with Jake for so long-two years-she never could bring herself to sleep with him. Everyone assumed that they were. And he assumed that they would.
Right, and he pressured her from the start. Jake Marcott was used to getting what he wanted-including sex. He couldn’t believe his girlfriend wasn’t willing to provide it. Back then, Lindsay marveled that he stuck around anyway.
Now, having learned infinitely more about human psychology, she had a feeling that if she had given in, he wouldn’t have stayed with her for as long as he did.
You always want what you can’t have.
And, if you were Jake Marcott, you were hell bent on getting it.
That was what kept him around.
And it was why he finally got fed up and dumped her.
She wasn’t quite sure why she never gave in to Jake back then, she only knew that it wouldn’t be right. She loved him, yes-but there was something about him that she just didn’t trust.
How strange, then, that she instinctively trusted Wyatt Goddard from the moment they first connected. Really connected-at that New Year’s Eve party.
She knew who he was before that, of course. He was always around, on her peripheral radar, but she was with Jake. And even if she hadn’t been, Wyatt wasn’t her type. He had too much of an edge…or so she believed.
Maybe that was because she’d never gotten a good look at him. At his eyes. Not until that night.
Unless you were a rock star, you could hardly show up at an indoor party, in the evening, in the dead of winter, wearing sunglasses. So there he was, without his ever-present shades-looking at her. She could feel his stare long before she allowed herself to meet it. And when she did…
Well, it might just as well have been midnight. Fireworks and confetti seemed to erupt with fanfare somewhere inside her, heralding the beginning of something new and promising.
She was drawn to Wyatt Goddard as she had never been drawn to anyone before.
At the party-and afterward. When they were alone together.
Even now, twenty years later, she knew that if she closed her eyes, she’d see the look in Wyatt’s that night as he lay intimately above her, propped on his elbows, her face cupped in his hands…
So Lindsay didn’t dare close her eyes.
She didn’t want to remember that. Especially not now.
She didn’t want to remember the unexpected tenderness that lay beneath his rough exterior…
No, because she’d feel even guiltier for not telling him about the baby.
Back then, in the months that followed their brief connection, she had managed to convince herself that she was doing him a favor not revealing her pregnancy. That a guy like Wyatt Goddard wouldn’t have any interest in a child, not even his own.
It was only when it was too late, when Wyatt-and the baby-were long gone from her life, that the fog lifted. It had comforted her in that year-the numbing haze that had enveloped her like a protective cloak, shielding her from the icy reality of her pregnancy and the harsher one of Jake’s murder.
But when her head began to clear, the memories came back. She was forced to acknowledge, if only to herself, that there might have been more to Wyatt Goddard than met the eye. More than she was able to see before they got together, more than she was willing to recall after she left him.
I cheated him, she told herself now-not for the first time. Not by far.
But sitting here across from him, looking into his eyes, the knowledge hit her harder than ever before.
“Coffee?” a waitress asked briskly, appearing with a steaming glass pot and a couple of laminated menus.
Wyatt nodded and turned over the cup before him in its saucer.
Lindsay did the same, though she was sure that if she tried to take a sip of anything right now, she’d gag.
In fact, she might gag anyway. She might throw up right here and now, in front of Wyatt and the waitress and everyone else.
To distract herself from the wave of nausea washing over her, she focused on returning the waitress’s brief, efficient smile as she poured their coffee.
Good. That’s better. She focused on the middle-aged woman’s faded gray eyes that matched her faded gray hair. Her plastic name tag said Marissa. That was interesting. She didn’t look like a Marissa. She looked more like a Bea or a Madge.
“Are you okay, honey?” she asked, peering at Lindsay with motherly concern. “You look a little green.”
“I’m fine…just a little…” She trailed off, conscious of Wyatt’s eyes still on her.
“Green,” the woman supplied, and chuckled.
“I’m right there with ya. I’m still in my first trimester-this is my fifth kid-and I’ve got morning sickness every day.”
Morning sickness? She can’t be much older than me, then, Lindsay realized with a start. She had her pegged for at least a decade beyond.
Well, Marissa was a coffee-shop waitress in New York with four kids to support and another on the way. She’d probably led a difficult life, and her struggles had taken a physical toll.
Which would indicate, in turn, that Wyatt must have led a relatively easy one. He didn’t look a day over thirty.
“I’ve been scarfing down saltines all morning,” the waitress continued conversationally, lifting the small stainless steel creamer from their table and making sure it wasn’t empty. Nope. She set it back down. “Every damned time I get pregnant, pardon my French, I tell myself it’s going to be different. I tell myself I’m not going to throw up every morning for the first couple of months. And every damned time-pardon again-it happens worse than ever.”
Lindsay murmured something appropriately sympathetic, because the woman seemed to be mainly addressing her.
“Oh, I’ll be okay in the end. The reward is worth it. I just love my babies.”
Lindsay offered her a taut, queasy smile.
“How about you? Do you have children, hon?”
Talk about a loaded question.
It certainly wasn’t one she wanted to answer in front of Wyatt Goddard.
She merely shook her head.
The waitress looked from her to Wyatt and back again. As if she’d been assuming they were a couple-and now realized her mistake-her smile lost some of its cheer.
“I’ll be right back to take your order.”
With that, she was gone.
Wyatt picked up one of the menus and wordlessly handed it to Lindsay.
She glanced at it blindly, her thoughts rushing along like a swollen mountain stream in April.
I have to tell him.
Just get it out there, in the open.
Just get it over with, for God’s sake.
But somehow, the words refused to come.
“Do you know what you want?”
Yes. I want to tell you that you have a son.
But I can’t seem to do it.
She glanced up to find him looking over his own menu.
“I’m just having toast,” she said, because she felt as though she’d have to order something.
“I’m having it, too.” He snapped his menu closed. “With eggs, bacon, and a side of sausage.”
She couldn’t help but grin. “Hungry?”
“Always. There are just some things I can’t resist.”
He’s talking about food, she reminded herself, even as she noted the provocative quirk in his brow.
For some reason, she found it necessary to say, “Like cholesterol?”
“Among other things.”
Okay, so he’s not talking about food.
But you should. Just to keep things straightforward and make it clear that nothing is going on here, under the surface.
“Do you, um, eat a huge breakfast every morning?” She could hear the nervousness in her voice.
“When I’m home, I do. I like to cook. In fact, I’ve always known my way around the kitchen, ever since I was a kid.”
“You sound surprised.”
“A lot of things about me might surprise you, Lindsay.”
He set his menu aside, leaned back in the booth, steepled his hands, and looked at her.
“So,” he said, “what’s up?”
And away we go.
Except…she still wasn’t ready.
So she hedged. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
“Twenty years last New Year’s.”
Whoa. Nothing like throwing it right out there, she thought, ducking her head to gaze at her menu again so that she wouldn’t have to look at him.
Wait a minute.
This was ridiculous. She wasn’t a teenaged girl anymore. She didn’t have to skirt around the fact that she’d had a, a-thing-with him. Wasn’t that essentially why they were here?
Forcing herself to meet his gaze again, she saw a glint of amusement there and actually found herself relaxing. Just a tad.
“I wasn’t talking about that, specifically,” she allowed herself to say, referring to their one night together.
“No, but you were thinking about it…right?”
He leaned forward abruptly, and she found herself with a close-up view of the face-the eyes-she had tried so hard to forget.
No wonder she couldn’t.
She was mesmerized all over again.
“I’ve thought about it a couple of times, too,” he told her.
“You mean…about that New Year’s Eve?”
“Yeah. Come on, you didn’t forget…did you?”
You have no idea.
“You couldn’t have,” he said simply, leaning back again, folding his arms. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be here now. Right?”
“What do you mean?”
“You looked me up. It must have something to do with the past…unless you’re looking for a Lamborghini.”
He frowned slightly. “Cars,” he said inexplicably.
“You lost me.”
“That’s what I do. Exotic luxury cars.”
“Oh!” She hesitated, wondering if she should let him think she had invited him here on business.
What? Have you lost it?
What are you going to do, buy a Porsche from him to throw him off the scent?
“I didn’t know that was what you did,” she said, buying time.
He shrugged. “That’s what I do. You?”
“I’m an event planner.”
He nodded as if he already knew that.
Had she told him?
She doubted it-but she seriously couldn’t remember.
Right now, under the heat of his gaze, she seriously couldn’t remember much of anything at all.
Oh, yes she could.
She remembered his lips…his mouth…his hands…his skin against hers; his weight, pressing the hard length of his body against hers, into hers…
He remembered, too. She could see it. He was remembering right now.
Her breath caught in her throat.
Dammit. Why was there always this…thing, this connection, between them?
Talk about an exaggeration.
There was no always where Wyatt Goddard was concerned. It was more like…
“Did we decide?” the waitress asked breezily, materializing beside their booth again, shattering the moment.
Thank you, Marissa.
Lindsay ordered toast.
“White, wheat, rye, whole grain, pumpernickel…?”
“On it, or on the side?”
Oh, for God’s sake, it’s just toast! she wanted to scream, the distraction she had just welcomed now irritating the hell out of her. She wanted to be left alone with Wyatt again.
Truly alone, though.
Not here, in a public coffee shop.
She ordered the butter on the side.
Wyatt ordered eggs, toast, bacon, a side of sausage.
“How do you want your eggs?” Marissa began. “Scrambled, over, up, poached-”
“Surprise me,” he cut in, and thrust the menus at her. “On all of it.”
The waitress sent him an amused, knowing smile and left them alone again.
“You might get hard-boiled eggs and pumpernickel toast with margarine,” Lindsay informed him with a grin.
“Sounds good.” He shook his head, reached across the table unexpectedly, and grabbed Lindsay’s hands.
There went her heart again, a ricocheting hockey puck skittering around in her rib cage.
“It’s good to see you again,” he said. “Really, really good.”
He was a flirt. She knew that; had always known.
This was part of his charming routine, she told herself sternly. Once a womanizer, always a womanizer.
“I haven’t seen anyone from back home in years.”
“Actually, neither have I,” she admitted. “Except my parents. But they don’t even live in Oregon anymore.”
“Where are they?”
“Retired. Near Las Vegas. How about yours?”
“They passed away.”
A shadow slid over his face. “So am I.” He squeezed her hands, let go. “But people die, and you move on. That’s life, right?”
He’s trying to be cavalier, she thought, and it isn’t working. Not at all.
“Are you married?” she asked, realizing she didn’t even know, grateful he had let go of her hands. Just in case he was.
Not that anything could possibly come of this if he wasn’t. But still…
Her hopes soared ridiculously.
“Divorced?” she asked.
“So you’re…Are you married?”
She shook her head quickly, trying not to smile. But she felt so damned giddy, realizing he was interested in her status.
“I’m surprised,” he said, and poured a generous amount of creamer into his coffee. “I always pictured you married to a great guy, with a couple of kids.”
About to sip her own coffee, she set the cup down again hard, the untouched black liquid sloshing over the edge.
“No,” she said tersely. “Not married to a great guy with a couple of kids.”
“Any particular reason why not?”
“Let me guess. You’re still waiting for Mr. Right to come along. Right?”
She forced herself to look at him. “Isn’t everyone?”
It was his turn to shrug.
You have to tell him.
She couldn’t just sit here shooting the breeze with him, flirting, letting him think this might be some kind of casual reunion for old times’ sake.
Or worse, the deliberate sparking of an old flame.
He deserved to know the truth before this went any further.
I just wish I didn’t want so badly for it to go further.
Wyatt insisted on picking up the check Marissa had dropped on the table. Lindsay argued, but she let him.
She didn’t argue, however, when he suggested that they take a walk through the park. He had a feeling that wasn’t just because she wanted to delay getting to the office or because it was a beautiful May morning.
Something was weighing on her mind.
Something she hadn’t been able to articulate back in the coffee shop.
A couple of times, he got the feeling that she was about to say something significant.
Other times, he sensed that she was tempted to bolt.
He was glad she hadn’t.
Seeing her again, he felt almost as if there had been a real and enduring relationship between them in the past, something more than a one-night stand.
Of course, there hadn’t been.
Yet somehow, they had reconnected the way a former boyfriend and girlfriend might, distinctly aware of rekindled chemistry, deliberately keeping the conversation light and rooted in the present.
As they ate-or rather, he ate, and she toyed with her toast-he told her about the various places he had lived and about his business. He deliberately downplayed the scope of his success, having realized that she didn’t know, after all. She had called him for a specific reason-that much was obvious from her preoccupied air-but as far as he could tell, his newfound wealth had nothing to do with it.
They made their way from the bustling, pedestrian-and-traffic-clogged corner of Fifty-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue into the comparative solitude of Central Park.
The warm, brilliant morning sunlight gave way to cooler dappled shade, and he shoved his sunglasses high over his forehead. No real reason to wear them here.
And no real reason to hide. Not anymore.
Birds chirped from leafy overhead branches, bikers and joggers whizzed past, and strangers strolled in their midst…yet essentially, they found themselves alone together.
It was time for Wyatt to find out why Lindsay had reached out to him today.
He looked over his shoulder. There was no one remotely in earshot other than a plump woman pushing an expensive-looking baby carriage along, maybe a hundred feet behind on the path.
She was probably a nanny, he found himself noting idly. The sleek buggy was stereotypical for an Upper East Side family, but the woman pushing it was not your average upscale Manhattan mom. She was too overweight, sloppy looking, unsophisticated.
And you’re stalling, speculating about random strangers instead of focusing on why you’re here with Lindsay.
Breaking the silence that had settled between them, he turned to her at last and said, “So…tell me.”
Her head jerked toward him and he saw that she was startled-and dismayed.
“Tell you what?” she asked slowly.
“Why you called. You don’t want a car from me, I’m assuming…So what is it that you do want?”
She didn’t answer.
Their footsteps crunched on the gravel.
Behind them, he could hear the nanny strolling along, her footsteps padding along the path, the cushy rubber tires of the baby’s buggy almost soundless.
In the distance was the faint sound of street traffic, along with the distinct clopping of a horse’s hoofs and the rumble of the carriage it was pulling, undoubtedly occupied by romantic tourists.
Wyatt found himself picturing himself riding in one with Lindsay snuggled beside him. In his fantasy it was night, and winter, and they were a couple.
Then Lindsay spoke, shattering the image-a good thing, because he wasn’t back in high school, daydreaming about a girl he couldn’t have. He was a grown man, for God’s sake…
Right. Daydreaming about a woman you can’t have.
Or could he?
When he heard what she was saying, hope came to life within him.
“It’s something I should have told you years ago. I should have said it as soon as I knew, but…I couldn’t.”
As soon as she knew? Knew what?
All at once, he realized what she was going to say.
She was about to tell him that the feeling he had assumed was one-sided twenty years ago was, in fact, mutual. That she had figured out after they slept together that she was falling in love, just as he had. But she, like he, chose not to reveal her feelings.
His pulse quickened in anticipation.
Say it, Lindsay. Just say it.
But she was in no hurry to play her hand.
He did his best to coax her along. “It’s okay that you couldn’t say it back then. I mean, you can still say it now.”
He tried to catch her eye, but she refused to look at him. She stared straight ahead, inhaled deeply, exhaled audibly, her nerves palpable.
He waited, fighting the urge to touch her fingers, take her hand, guide her along.
“It’s not easy.” She sounded almost…distraught.
“I know. Would it help if I told you I felt the same way?”
“I should have told you, too. But I didn’t.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I felt the same way, Lindsay. My God, I mean…I never expected that to happen that night. And when you took off afterward, I figured you weren’t interested in someone like me. So I kept it all to myself.”
“What?” she asked again, turning to look at him at last.
That was when he saw the utter confusion in her eyes, and his heart sank.
“Wyatt…I don’t think we’re talking about the same thing here.”
“I guess we’re not.” He shook his head. Fool!
“Oh my God,” she whispered.
She knows. She knows what I was talking about, even if I have no idea what she was talking about.
He had gone and let his guard down for an instant, spilled his guts, and all for nothing.
“For a second there,” she said slowly, “I thought you might have known all along…and that would have made this so much easier.”
“Made what so much easier? What the hell are you talking about, Lindsay?” he demanded, his patience fraying fast.
“That night-the night we-Wyatt, I got pregnant,” she blurted.
Her words swept through him like a tsunami.
Above the roar that consumed him, body and soul, he heard the rest. “I had a baby. The baby. Your baby.”
Keeping a careful distance, she watched Wyatt Goddard abruptly stop walking and rake a hand through his hair.
The motion knocked his sunglasses to the ground. He appeared not to notice.
Her hands tightened on the handle of the empty baby carriage she had just stolen from its vulnerable sidewalk parking spot outside a deli on a nearby side street.
She slowed her footsteps, not wanting to overtake them.
A breeze rustled the branches overhead, so that it was impossible for her to hear.
Lindsay faltered, touched Wyatt’s shoulder, then leapt back as if she had been burned when he appeared to brush her off with a brusque comment.
Lindsay seemed to be pulling herself together for a moment, then she said something else to him.
The breeze stopped and a snatch of conversation reached her ears.
She stopped pushing the buggy altogether and bent over it as if adjusting the nonexistent baby’s blanket.
“…so sorry, I just didn’t know what to…”
That came from Lindsay.
So, louder and more clearly, did, “Please, Wyatt, don’t-”
The wind gusted again, dammit.
Wyatt was talking, she saw, sneaking a glance in her direction as she fussed over the imaginary occupant of the buggy.
Then a couple of phrases reached her ears even though the leaves overhead were still stirring. They were separated by unintelligible comments, or protests, from Lindsay.
“How could you?”
“Dammit, Lindsay, I had a right to know.”
And finally, “So he’s in Queens?”
I was right, she thought triumphantly.
Wyatt Goddard had fathered Lindsay Farrell’s baby.
She only wished Jake Marcott were alive to know about his girlfriend’s shocking betrayal.
Ex-girlfriend, she amended.
Still, even when it was over between Jake and Lindsay that December of their senior year, people assumed it wasn’t over. You didn’t forget a longtime relationship just like that. Unfinished business still seemed to linger between them. Jake still loved Lindsay; Lindsay still loved Jake. Everyone figured that was the case, including Kristen Daniels, who dated Jake next-and last.
The rumor was that Jake dumped Lindsay because she wouldn’t sleep with him.
She had heard it many times during the two years they were dating.
When she realized Lindsay was pregnant, she assumed the rumor was obviously false.
Now, all at once, it was viable again.
Lindsay might not have been sleeping with Jake, but she was sleeping with Wyatt Goddard behind his back. How scandalous of her. How daring. And how cunning.
It almost makes me admire Lindsay, she realized with an ironic smile, watching her watch Wyatt Goddard striding away.
But that doesn’t change what I have to do to her.
If anything, it would make it even sweeter, knowing that perhaps Lindsay Farrell’s true love hadn’t been buried after all in the Marcott family plot on that bitter February day.
No, it appeared that her true love was alive and well.
Look at Lindsay, bereft, standing there alone on the path as Wyatt disappears. Potent yearning practically radiated off of her.
Despite the obvious turmoil between them, she was probably still hoping they had a second chance.
Maybe she was thinking that together, they could meet the son they’d given up. That the three of them could walk off into the sunset and live happily ever after, a family at last.
Sorry, but that’s not going to happen, Lindsay.
You’re not going to live happily ever after.
You’re not going to live at all.
Oblivious to her chilling fate and the figure watching her from a distance, Lindsay gazed at Wyatt walking away.
Storming away, really, and she watched him go until he disappeared around a bend in the path.
Then the ache took hold, a longing so fierce that she actually doubled over, just briefly, hugging herself. When she straightened and looked around, she saw a heavyset woman with a baby buggy, poised behind her in the path.
She was looking up, at Lindsay, but she quickly looked down again, at the baby in the carriage.
Typical New Yorker. She probably thought Lindsay was in some kind of physical trouble, and didn’t want to get involved.
Lindsay didn’t need help. She was fine.
She took a deep, trembling breath, steeled her nerves, and walked on in the direction Wyatt had taken.
She wasn’t going after him, though; she knew better than that.
He needed time to absorb what she had told him. Time to cool off.
Maybe he never would.
But at least she had done the right thing at last.
That was what mattered here. All that mattered.
Lindsay had no business longing for something more with Wyatt.
Maybe not, but you are.
So she wanted more. She couldn’t help it. She wanted to see him again, she wanted him in her life.
Absorbed in wistful, futile fantasies, she never looked back.
She never saw the plump blond nanny abandon the baby buggy in the path.
She never saw her reach over to pick up the sunglasses Wyatt had dropped, tucking them into her pocket with a thoughtful smile.
Leo Cellamino’s cell phone rang just as he was walking past a group of old men playing checkers in the Thursday evening twilight outside a prewar apartment building off Queens Boulevard.
His first thought was that the caller would have to leave a message; he was carrying a large, flat white box that was already fifteen minutes late. How well he knew, after three years delivering pizzas for his Uncle Joe’s pizzeria, that hungry customers had low blood sugar; low blood sugar made a person irritable and impatient; and irritable, impatient people didn’t tip well, if at all.
Anyway, it was probably Sarah Rose. She had called his home number looking for him, and his mother said she’d given her his cell number, too.
Then Leo remembered that he had given Lindsay Farrell his cell phone number, too, the other morning when they spoke.
He immediately looked around for somewhere to set the pizza box.
Spotting no convenient resting places, he set it carefully on the ground at his feet and pulled his ringing cell phone from the pocket of his shirt.
The Caller ID window showed an unfamiliar Manhattan number.
“Hello?” he said eagerly, ignoring the disapproving stares from the old men.
“Leo, this is Lindsay Farrell.”
“Hi.” His voice came out sounding strangled.
“I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. There were just a few things I needed to do.”
Right. Like inform my father that I exist.
Truth be told, he hadn’t expected her to get back in touch this soon, if at all.
“That’s okay,” he told her, and took a step away from the glaring old men.
His foot nearly landed square in the middle of the pizza box on the ground; it was all he could do to keep it airborne and maintain his balance.
Good save. At least I didn’t squash the merchandise, he told himself, turning his back to the old guys and carefully straddling the box on the ground.
“Leo, I was wondering if you were going to be around this weekend at all. We’d…like to meet you. If that’s what you want.”
“We? You mean…?”
She cleared her throat. “Your, ah, father. And me.”
“Are you kidding? I would love that.”
He heard her exhale as if she’d been holding her breath.
It was only then that he realized, for the first time, that he wasn’t the only one who had a lot at stake.
Lindsay Farrell did as well.
And so did his father…whoever he was.
Heck, it didn’t even matter who he was.
What mattered was that he knew about Leo now…and he wanted to meet him.
“Wyatt, it’s Lindsay. I, um, got your message and I went ahead and set something up for this weekend in Connecticut, like you said. Saturday afternoon at your place, right? I hope that still works for you. I told him you were sending a car to pick him up…but really, you don’t have to send one for me. I’ll get myself up there, so don’t worry about-”
A second beep cut off her final word.
Oh, well. She doubted he was worried about her.
It wasn’t as if he had touched base with her these past few days, after she’d made her big revelation that morning in the park.
His reaction was pretty much what she expected.
He was shocked, angry, upset.
He’d made it obvious that he wasn’t interested in excuses, so she didn’t offer any. She offered nothing other than a heartfelt apology, several of them, all of which he brushed off.
Can you really blame him?
They had gone their separate ways, and she had at first thought she might never hear from him.
She supposed she probably deserved that, in the grand scheme of things…and she could accept it. She really could.
But where would that leave Leo?
Perhaps no better off, or worse off, than he’d been before.
After all, you can’t miss something you never had.
That’s bullshit, and you know it better than anyone, she told herself, hanging up the phone and heading into the bathroom.
There, she splashed some water on her face and looked at herself in the mirror.
She hadn’t realize how much she had missed Wyatt until she saw him again.
Until he left her there, in the park.
Somehow, Lindsay pulled herself together and went to her office. Somehow, she made it through that workday, and then another, and another.
She even made it through the long nights, untainted by further prank phone calls.
With the news of Haylie’s murder almost a week old by then, and the memory of the prank caller’s eerie voice fading as well, she was no longer as fearful about her own safety, or Leo’s.
In fact, she’d almost convinced herself when she woke up this morning that she should just let go of everything connected to the past: the reunion, Haylie, Jake, Leo…and yes, Wyatt, too. Especially Wyatt.
Then, tonight, she came home from work and found her message light blinking.
“Lindsay, it’s Wyatt…”
His voice-even a recorded version-stole her breath away.
“Listen, I’ve thought about it and I think we should meet him, if that’s what he wants. I’m assuming it is. I mean, that’s why people track down their birth parents, right?”
He made a sound, a bitter laugh, it sounded like.
He went on to instruct her to set up a meeting for Saturday at his house. It had to be Saturday, he said, because he was flying out first thing Sunday on business and wouldn’t be back for a week. He’d send separate town cars for her and for Leo at two o’clock, to transport them up to Connecticut, and he’d arrange for the cars to take them back later.
His instructions were businesslike, his tone void of emotion.
She recognized the air of detached efficiency; she herself adopted it whenever she was working, making arrangements for upcoming events.
But this wasn’t just an event, she told herself as she rummaged in a drawer for a tube of lipstick.
Saturday’s meeting loomed as a life-altering milestone.
You’d think he’d have exhibited a little more awareness of that.
Leo certainly had, when she’d called him minutes ago to spring it on him.
His voice had radiated enthusiasm, especially when she told him that his father was sending a car for him.
“Is he rich, then?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” she lied.
She had discerned from Wyatt’s appearance, from what he told her about his business, and from what she knew about where he lived, that he was rich.
There-she plucked a soft pink lipstick from the drawer, bypassing the red one Isaac had once complimented her on when she wore it.
She was meeting him for a drink tonight, but she wasn’t trying to impress him. Not these days.
Wyatt was a different story, though. She’d taken great care with her appearance the morning they met. She wondered if he had done the same or if he always dressed so elegantly.
Maybe he did. He had to travel in fancy circles these days.
The money had changed Wyatt outwardly, but she could tell, even from the brief time they’d spent together, that it hadn’t changed him inwardly.
He hadn’t lost his sensitive core that had captivated her twenty years ago, would captivate her still, if he’d let her in.
He was going to…
She could tell. Before she dropped the news on him, his walls were coming down. He was making her laugh, trying to put her at ease…
Then I went and ruined everything.
Not that she’d had a choice. She had to tell him; that was why she’d contacted him. He wasn’t going to pretend they were merely catching up; he knew there was something on her mind.
Right, but he thought it was something else.
Would it help if I told you I felt the same way? he had asked.
I never expected that to happen that night. And when you took off afterward, I figured you weren’t interested in someone like me. So I kept it all to myself…
Kept all what to himself? His feelings? He had feelings for her?
She couldn’t help wondering, in the moments before everything fell apart between them, whether there was actually a glimmer of hope.
Was there some way she and Wyatt could-
The ringing of the telephone shattered that thought.
She swiftly finished outlining her lips, set aside her lipstick, and hurried to answer it, checking her watch on the way. Lost in her reverie about Wyatt, she had taken too long to get ready. Now she was late-only by a couple of minutes, but it was probably Isaac on the phone, wondering if she’d forgotten.
“Hey, stranger,” a female voice greeted her.
“Who-oh my God! Aurora?”
“Hey, very good! But would you have known it was me if Kristen hadn’t told you I was going to be calling?”
Truth be told, she had forgotten all about that.
“Are you in New York, Aurora?” she asked, remembering what Kristen had said about their friend’s travel plans. That conversation seemed so long ago.
“Yup, we just got here. Gosh, it’s huge. I’ve wanted to see it all my life, and now here I am. I just wish Eddie could have come, too.”
“Why didn’t he?”
Aurora launched into a brief description of her husband’s duties back home, holding down the fort and shuttling their other kids to their activities.
“He complains, but he’s a great daddy. He’s loved every minute of it. He cried harder than anyone at Tina’s wedding.”
“I’ll bet.” Lindsay found herself thinking of Wyatt again.
She’d never even given him a chance to be a great daddy. And he might very well have been.
But it was too late now.
Their son was grown.
Wyatt had been robbed.
“So when can we get together?” Aurora asked. “Are you busy tonight?”
“Actually, I’m supposed to be somewhere right now.”
“Hmm…tomorrow, then? Or Saturday? We wanted to see a Broadway show, but we don’t have tickets yet. Everything we want to see is sold out.”
“This is a busy time of year,” Lindsay told her. “But what did you want to see? Maybe I can pull some strings.”
“Are you serious?”
Lindsay grinned, noting that Aurora sounded like her old animated self. “Sure. Just tell me which shows you’re interested in, and I’ll try to get a pair of tickets. They might not be the greatest seats, but-”
“Are you kidding, Linds? Any seats would be great. You’re such a doll to do this.”
There it was again-the affectionate old nickname that was such a stark reminder of the girl she used to be.
Nobody called her that now. Strange, because shortening somebody’s name was a natural thing to do when you were close to someone.
Then again, nobody was as close to her as those girls-her high-school friends-had once been. You didn’t bond that intensely with others as a grown woman; there wasn’t enough time in the day as it was. And anyway, you weren’t in a phase of your life where you were insecure and dependent on other people.
But you still needed friends.
And Lindsay was more conscious now than ever of the loneliness in her life.
Maybe it’s not just about longing for friends.
Maybe what you need is a different kind of companionship. Something more lasting. More…
Again, Wyatt Goddard popped into her head.
No, he had never really left. Thoughts of him were always there now, lurking just beyond her consciousness, ready to intrude at any given moment.
Hmm…it was really turning out to be quite a week for Lindsay Farrell when it came to catching up with old friends, the killer thought.
First Kristen, then Wyatt, and now Lindsay had just agreed to a Friday night dinner date with Aurora.
She’d even sounded enthusiastic when she agreed with Aurora’s request that they dine at Sardi’s, one of the most touristy restaurants in town, over in the theater district.
But then, she always was a fake and a liar, so what do you expect?
She checked her watch, wondering where Lindsay was off to now. She’d said she was meeting an old friend.
It couldn’t be Wyatt, could it?
No. She’d had Lindsay’s phone tapped all week, and as far as she knew, the only contact she’d had with him had been in messages. They weren’t supposed to see each other until Saturday, when they had their little family reunion up in Connecticut.
A plan was already forming in her mind for that special occasion.
A daring plan, and one that deviated pretty drastically from her vow not to harm anyone other than the targets on her original list.
But now that the idea had sparked, it was pretty hard to ignore.
It was the perfect way to get to Lindsay, to make her suffer what people-some people, anyway-considered to be “a fate worse than death.”
That had been Caroline Marcott’s pathetically wailed phrasing at her son’s wake on that long-ago February day.
Was losing a child really a fate worse than death?
She wouldn’t know.
Maybe she’d soon find out, though. Through Lindsay.
Yes, she’d see that Lindsay suffered that so-called fate worse then death-and then she would suffer death itself.
And then we’ll decide which was worse, she thought.
Oh, wait a minute, Lindsay…you won’t be around for that part.
I guess I’ll just have to decide on my own, won’t I?
Her lips curved into a wicked smile as she hurried out of the hotel room and onto the street, hoping to get to Lindsay’s building in time to tail her to wherever she was going.
“You don’t seem like yourself tonight,” Isaac observed, setting down his margarita glass and studying Lindsay from across the small table, which held an untouched basket of chips and a bowl of salsa.
Lindsay blinked. “I don’t?”
“No. Normally, you would scarf down those chips in a hurry and ask for more. I’d assume it was because you had eaten dinner before you came, if you weren’t so quiet.”
“Sorry,” she said, and made an effort to smile at him. “I guess I’m just thinking about work.”
“No, you aren’t.” Isaac’s gaze was intent. “Who is he?”
She frowned. “What makes you think there’s a he?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Is it a she?”
He swung his arm and snapped his fingers in feigned disappointment. “I was convinced for a second there that the only reason you dumped me was because you played for the other team.”
She winced even as she grinned. “I didn’t dump you, Isaac. It was mutual.”
“I’d have kept it going if you wanted to.”
Maybe that was true. Maybe it wasn’t.
It didn’t matter now.
He had moved on to Kylah…but not, by the sounds of it, past Rachel.
That was somebody else’s problem now.
And you have enough of your own, she reminded herself, her mind clouding over again at the thought of Wyatt. And Leo.
She was almost tempted to confide in Isaac. He, after all, was far removed from the world she’d left behind twenty years ago. There was no danger that he’d spill her secret.
But you don’t have to worry about that anymore, anyway. Wyatt knows.
Yes, and he was the reason she had kept it so carefully hidden all these years. Because she didn’t want it to get back to him.
Now that he knew what she had done…
Well, there really wasn’t a compelling reason to protect her past so adamantly.
Sure, her parents would be disappointed. But they had mellowed through the years, and anyway, their approval didn’t carry the weight it had when she was living under their roof, dependent on their bank account.
Her old friends would be shocked.
Jake would have been, too.
But his imagined reaction was moot. He had been dead for two decades. And even if he had lived, she wouldn’t possibly still be trying to shield him from the evidence of her fling with somebody else, would she?
Not unless they were married or something…
And she and Jake Marcott never in a million years would have gotten married.
She knew that now.
Jake didn’t have the qualities she’d want in a husband.
Jake didn’t even have the qualities she wanted in a boyfriend.
But she never let on about that-about what kind of person he had really turned out to be. You didn’t speak ill of the dead.
“So who is he?” Isaac asked again, thoughtfully nibbling the curved triangular edge of a tortilla chip.
“He’s just someone I used to know, back in Portland,” she heard herself admit.
Must be the tequila.
“Did he get back in touch with you?”
“I did, actually.”
“Have you seen him, or just talked to him?”
“And you wish you hadn’t, right? Because things have fizzled?”
“No, that’s not it at all.”
“I didn’t think so.” Isaac nodded. “There was still something there, right? And it scared the hell out of you?”
“There’s more to it than that.”
“There always is. Is he married?”
“No!” She shifted her weight uncomfortably. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“I can tell. Let me just say one thing, and then I swear I’ll change the subject. You haven’t seen this person in years, and he was someone you once cared about. You’re not married, he’s not married…or in jail. An added bonus.”
She barely cracked a smile at his weak joke.
“All I’m saying is that I can see how someone like you would get scared off and walk away. And you shouldn’t do it. Take it from me, Lindsay. You don’t want to have regrets. If I ever had another chance with Rachel-”
“It isn’t like that at all,” she cut in.
“In some ways, it is. We all lose people we love, Lindsay. Not all of us are lucky enough to find them again. If we do, we shouldn’t let go that easily.”
“You’re talking about you and Rachel, not me and-”
“You’re right,” he said, his dark features having taken on the potent expression he always wore when Rachel’s name came up. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m just-”
She meant it lightly, but his scowl told her this wasn’t a joking matter. Not to him.
Not any more than Wyatt was to her, but for far different reasons.
“Let’s just drop it,” she said. “Okay?”
And they tried to talk about other things. Her job, his work as a computer-software engineer, his new girlfriend, the Yankees, the weather.
But none of it banished the ghosts of the past that swirled around their table, and Lindsay was grateful to call it a night.
Isaac offered to walk her home, but she declined. She lived only a few blocks east of here, and it was hardly on his way; he had to go west to take the subway downtown.
They parted with a promise to get together again soon, but she wasn’t entirely sure that they would.
As she made her way along the narrow block leading east from Lexington Avenue, a vaguely uneasy feeling crept over her.
The street wasn’t deserted; not in this neighborhood at this hour on a beautiful night in May. The block was lined with luxury apartment high-rises and a smattering of older brick buildings, some with security-gated storefronts on the ground floor. Colorful annuals tumbled from stray planters and the occasional windowbox, and every so often the sidewalk blocks were broken by a carefully tended young tree.
A few people were out and about: an elderly man leaning heavily on a cane, a young couple strolling holding hands, a stout middle-aged woman walking a pair of impossibly small dogs joined by a single leash.
Lindsay snuck a glance over her shoulder and glimpsed a dark figure about a third of the way down the block behind her. It seemed to dart into a doorway abruptly…
Almost as if the person didn’t want me to see him.
But it was probably just her imagination.
Whoever it was must have happened to arrive at his destination just as she looked back. Paranoia made her think he was trying to hide from her.
She turned her head forward again and walked on, much more quickly, looking over her shoulder all the way home.
That was a close call.
The killer crouched in the shadows beside a tall yellow brick apartment building, trying not to breathe in too deeply. A foul-smelling garbage can was just a few feet away.
What if she had seen you?
Relax. Even if she did, she wouldn’t recognize me.
The wig, the thick glasses, the padding…
It was an apt disguise. Such an apt disguise that she didn’t even recognize herself whenever she caught a glimpse of her reflection in a plate-glass window as she passed.
That was a strange feeling-being invisible right in plain sight.
But it shouldn’t have been.
Not for her.
Wasn’t that the reason all this had started in the first place?
Yes. And now it was almost time to bring it full circle.
What goes around comes around…
Hearing the voice echoing in her head, bringing with it a vague memory of something painful, she tried to remember who it was who’d said that to her.
One of her teachers?
It was Jake, she realized. Well, wasn’t that a coincidence.
“What goes around comes around,” he’d said, laughing at her as she’d cried.
Now, looking back, she couldn’t remember what she was crying about-only that he’d hurt her, in return for some perceived injury she’d supposedly inflicted on him.
Trembling, hiding in the building’s shadows beside the smelly garbage can, she closed her eyes and saw Jake Marcott’s smirking face.
What goes around comes around.
Yes, it sure does, Jake, she told him now, remembering the satisfying whiz and thwack of the arrow as it slammed into him, pinning him against the tree. Remembering the look of shock on his face as he glanced in horror at the slowly spreading red stain on the front of his shirt, then up at her.
He asked why, in a voice that was almost too weak to discern.
She didn’t bother to answer his pathetic question.
There wasn’t time; she had to get away, back to the others. She had to prepare herself to react to the shocking, so-called tragedy that was about to strike them all.
And anyway, there was no reason to explain it to Jake. He should have known why.
It was his own fault. His, and theirs-the girls whose lives had, in some way or other, been intertwined with Jake’s, and, fatefully, with her own.
Jake had paid the price for his sins.
Haylie had, too.
And one by one, the others would join them, forever becoming part of the legend of St. Elizabeth’s school.
Oh, yes, what goes around comes around, she thought gleefully, brazenly stepping out of the shadows after all, into the pool of light from a street lamp.
She gazed down the block, hoping to see Lindsay scuttling off like a frightened child.
She was already gone.
Oh, well. It was enough, for now, to know that she was poised at the perimeter of Lindsay Farrell’s charmed life.
Poised like the wrecking ball that would soon claim the old school where it had all begun.
And when it came time for release, she would swing in with all her might, destroying everything in her path.
Lindsay would have known Aurora Zephyr anywhere.
Spotting her old friend perusing the wall of famous caricatures just inside the entrance at Sardi’s on Forty-fourth Street just off Broadway, she stopped short and took in the sight of her.
She had the same dark curly hair, the same crinkly hazel eyes that widened in delight when she turned and saw Lindsay.
“Oh my God! Look at you!” she squealed, hurrying over to embrace her. “You’re so sophisticated!”
“I am?” Lindsay looked down at the trim black suit she still wore from a long day at the office. There had been no time to run home and change.
“God, yes! Especially standing next to me!” Aurora had a point, but Lindsay would never admit it to her.
Slightly overweight in a bright colored dress, sheer tan panty hose, and a pair of low-heeled white pumps that were at least a few years old, her friend fit right in with the hordes of tourists crowding the lobby area of the famous restaurant.
“You look terrific, Aurora,” Lindsay told her. Maybe not sophisticated, but who cared about that? Her old friend truly was a breath of fresh air, and Lord knew she needed one tonight.
“Oh, come on, I’m an old frump. I’m going to be a grandmother before the year is out, you know. I never thought I’d live to see the day, but here it comes.”
“I know-congratulations! Where’s Tina?” Lindsay looked around for Aurora’s daughter. “I can’t wait to meet her.”
“She couldn’t come at the last minute. Poor thing. She was absolutely wiped out after all the shopping we did today. Neither of us are used to so much walking, but it really did Tina in. When you’re pregnant, you’re pretty much exhausted through the whole first trimester,” she added unnecessarily.
How well Lindsay knew that.
She remembered how hard it was to get out of bed for school when her alarm went off on weekday mornings as their senior year dragged on, and the numbing fatigue that often nearly caused her to fall asleep in class.
But of course, Aurora didn’t know about any of that.
And she appeared to feel sorry for poor, childless Lindsay now, as they waited for their table. She sounded almost apologetic as she chatted about her impending grandchild.
They were seated more quickly than Lindsay expected, thanks to changing their existing reservation from three people to two. She had been prepared to slip a big tip to someone if necessary to secure a good table, but they landed one anyway.
“Look at this place!” Aurora marveled, spreading her napkin in her lap and gazing at the portraits that lined the walls of the large main-floor dining room. “I’ve always wanted to eat here. Is the food good?”
“I’m not sure,” admitted Lindsay, who favored out-of-the-way restaurants in the Village and Tribeca.
“You must eat out all the time, though,” Aurora said a little wistfully, “living here in Manhattan, being in your business.”
“I do eat out a lot,” she said just as wistfully, imagining Aurora presiding over cozy family dinners in a suburban kitchen back in Oregon.
She wondered what it would be like to be married to someone you had loved for all those years, to have a family and grow old with him…
Could there be anything more precious in the whole wide world?
No, there couldn’t.
Lindsay just hoped Aurora knew how lucky she was.
Grimly, she cast aside the thought of Wyatt and Leo. Again.
They’d been haunting her all day, but she had already decided she wasn’t going to let tomorrow’s looming confrontation intrude upon her evening with Aurora.
They ordered white wine, chatted amiably, and studied their menus.
“What do you think prix fixe is?” Aurora asked, pronouncing the French phrase as if it rhymed.
When Lindsay gently corrected her, hoping she wouldn’t be embarrassed, Aurora burst out laughing at herself.
“Do you think anybody overheard me?” she asked, sneaking a peek at the diners occupying adjacent tables.
Lindsay took a quick look around. “Nah.” They were mostly older couples and families of tourists, all engrossed in conversations of their own. A large blond woman was dining solo at the next table over and had her back to them, but who cared if she, or anyone else, had been privy to Aurora’s gaffe?
“God, I’m such a bumpkin. I don’t know how you managed to move here and fit in so well, Lindsay.”
“I’ve been here twenty years, and you are not a bumpkin. You’re a sweetheart who happens not to speak French.”
Aurora grinned. “Or who tries, and ends up talking about pricks in a fancy restaurant.”
Yes, she really was a breath of fresh air, Lindsay thought, glad she had made time to meet her old friend. As she nibbled her smoked salmon appetizer, she found that she didn’t even have to do much talking, as was always the case in Aurora’s company.
Aurora munched and chatted her way through her tomato-basil-mozzarella salad, talking animatedly about her family. Then, as they sipped their Merlot, waiting for the entrees to arrive, she changed the subject to the upcoming reunion-and Haylie’s death.
“I heard about it from Kristen,” Lindsay said, twirling the stem of her glass back and forth in her fingers. “I can’t believe it.”
“Nobody can. Eddie told me when I called home this morning that they arrested someone last night,” Aurora said unexpectedly.
Lindsay lowered her goblet. “Who was it?”
“Do you remember Louie Blake?”
She shook her head. “Should I? Did he go to school with us?”
“No!” Aurora wrinkled her nose. “Please, he’s got to be in his late forties, at least. He’s a bum, basically. He’s been hanging around the streets for years, getting into trouble. I guess you must have been gone by the time he showed up, though.”
“He killed Haylie?” Lindsay asked, relieved not just that they had someone in custody but that it was no one connected to high school, or Jake.
“They think so. He was caught trying to use one of her credit cards at a liquor store, and they found out that he had a bunch of stuff he must have stolen from her apartment.”
“I know…I feel guilty that I didn’t go after her with Kristen the night she freaked out and ran out of the reunion meeting. Not that Kristen managed to catch up with her and calm her down anyway. Did she tell you what happened?”
“Kristen? She just said that Haylie was still really upset over Ian and Jake after all these years.”
“Right. She made a big scene, accusing us all of ridiculous things, and took off. It was awful. And I feel so sorry for her, really. I mean, felt.”
They were both silent as they realized, again, that they could only refer to Haylie in past tense from now on.
Aurora added, “She never got over what happened to Ian.”
“I know. Poor Haylie.”
“What about you, Lindsay?”
“What about me?”
“Did you ever get over what happened to Jake?”
About to sip her wine, Lindsay found herself taking a gulp instead. She looked around, wishing the waiter would show up with their meals.
“I don’t like to talk about that, really, Aurora,” she said. “It was so traumatic.”
“Of course it was. God, I’m so sorry I even brought it up. I guess I just wanted to know that you were okay. You know, that you had moved on. Because you moved away right after and you never really came back, and I figured that was why.”
Right. That was probably what everyone thought, that she had left for New York because she was distraught over Jake’s murder. And who would blame her?
They were broken up, but she was still widely regarded as the bereaved girlfriend, much to Kristen’s dismay-and barely concealed resentment.
“It was hard to get over what happened,” she told Aurora now. “But you move on, you know? You have to get on with your life.”
“I know.” Aurora reached over and squeezed her hand. “I didn’t mean to drag all that out tonight, Linds. Let’s talk about something more upbeat.”
Lindsay forced a smile. “Good idea. And I have just the topic. I got those Jersey Boys tickets you and Tina wanted. A matinee tomorrow afternoon.”
“Ooh!” Aurora hugged her across the table. “You’re the best, Lindsay. How can I ever repay you?”
“You don’t have to. What are friends for?”
“This is Lindsay. I’m not in; please leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
Wyatt disconnected the call in the midst of the answering machine’s beep.
What was he supposed to say?
If you don’t know, then why did you call her?
That was a good question.
He didn’t know the answer. He had simply found himself walking restlessly around the house with his cell phone in hand; her number was programmed into it.
He still didn’t even know why he had done that. Why not just keep it jotted on a slip of paper tucked into the kitchen drawer where he kept stray business cards and receipts and order numbers? That was what he did with most women’s phone numbers. Very few were eventually programmed into his phone. And those he did program in were always eventually removed.
Allison’s was the most recent.
He hadn’t heard from her since she’d moved out; he didn’t expect to.
As for Lindsay…
After tomorrow, he wouldn’t be in touch with her again. There would be no reason to.
In fact, if he had any way of meeting his son without her present, he would have arranged to do so.
Oh, come on, Wyatt, who are you kidding?
You don’t need her here tomorrow. You could have just gotten the kid’s contact info from her and met him on your own.
So why didn’t he?
Why had he gone ahead and arranged this little family reunion?
Anyone would be furious with Lindsay for what she’d done.
And he was. Absolutely.
But there was a part of him, deep down, that was also, maybe, just a little…
If she had come to him, pregnant, twenty years ago, what would he have done?
He knew exactly what he’d have done.
He’d have convinced her to have the baby and marry him.
He was in love with her; knowing she was carrying his child would have put him over the moon.
And she would have either walked away from him-again-had the baby, and given it up just as she wound up doing…
Or she would have married him, and they would have tried to raise their son together.
There wasn’t a doubt in Wyatt’s mind that if they had married and become parents at eighteen, they couldn’t have made it work. The odds would have been stacked tremendously against them. Yes, he’d loved Lindsay back then, but was he really equipped to be a husband and father?
Not in the least.
So, being Catholic, they would have ended up either bitterly married, merely sticking it out, as his parents had…
Or divorced, and riddled with guilt-Catholic and otherwise. And their son would have come from a broken home-which he does anyway, Wyatt reminded himself. But still, that wasn’t Wyatt’s fault. It was some other man who had walked out on his wife and kid.
Every single time he thought of it-the miraculous fact that he had a son-his stomach was consumed by a flurry of Christmas-morning butterflies.
Yes, Lindsay’s decision had denied him the option of being a part of his son’s life until now…
But she had also denied him the chance to screw it up. And he would have.
Back then, he was ill equipped, emotionally and financially, for the responsibility.
Bring it on.
He was more than ready. He was going to wholeheartedly support his son emotionally and financially, give him whatever he needed-hell, whatever he wanted. He was going to spoil the kid rotten if he felt like it, and there was no reason not to.
What about Lindsay, though? a nagging voice intruded. What are you going to do about her?
He was going to try to forgive her for what she had done, knowing, intellectually, that it was probably the wisest, most selfless decision she could have made in her situation.
That was the mature and logical thing to do.
Then he was going to maturely and logically move on. Try to forget her.
Right. Just like he had before.
And look how well that turned out.
All she had to do was call and you went running to her, no questions asked. All she had to do was look at you and twenty years fell away, and you were like a teenaged boy with a one-track mind again.
Yes, and now you’re calling her number and hanging up. Perfect.
With a scowl, Wyatt tossed his cell phone onto the granite countertop and headed up to his gym to work out-and thus, work her out of his system-so that he could get a good night’s sleep in preparation for what lay ahead tomorrow.
Forty-Fourth Street was bright with neon lights and packed with people when Lindsay and Aurora emerged from Sardi’s after a long, leisurely meal. They’d had dessert at the table followed by after-dinner drinks in the upstairs bar. The time flew by, and the conversation flowed.
Now it was getting late, and the post-theater crowd packed the sidewalks.
“Uh-oh-it’s going to be hard for me to get a cab back to the hotel, isn’t it?” Aurora observed, gazing at the street clogged with honking taxis, town cars, and limousines. They were forced to creep along far more slowly than the pedestrians who moved along the sidewalks.
“It won’t be hard to get a cab. It will be impossible,” Lindsay replied. “But you’re staying right at the Grand Hyatt next to Grand Central Station, aren’t you? It’s an easy walk from here. Just a few blocks.”
“Ha, that’s what the doorman said when he told me I could walk here. I didn’t know he meant a few of those really long, long crosstown blocks,” Aurora said ruefully. “I thought he meant the short uptown-downtown kind. I can’t make it back.”
“Sure you can. It won’t be so bad. Come on, I’ll walk you there.”
“Is it on your way home?”
“More or less,” Lindsay told her.
Aurora seemed to consider her offer, but only for a minute.
“No, thanks, my feet are killing me. I did way too much walking today. I can take the subway instead.”
“The subway?” Lindsay asked dubiously, wondering if her friend could possibly negotiate the complicated network of train lines that ran beneath the city streets.
Then again, if she got on right here at Times Square, she’d only have to take the crosstown shuttle two stops to Grand Central and walk right upstairs to her hotel. Or she could take the number seven train, which traveled the same route before heading beneath the East River out to Queens.
That made Lindsay think of Leo. And Wyatt. Again.
This time, she couldn’t seem to push them back out of her head.
“I’ve always wanted to ride the subway,” Aurora said cheerfully as they made their way across Broadway toward the station. “I’ve seen it in so many movies and TV shows. I can’t believe I actually get to ride it.”
Lindsay grinned at her friend’s giddy enthusiasm. She remembered feeling the same way when she first moved to New York. Not right away, though. She didn’t get out into the city until after the baby had been born and she had gone on to college, getting on with her life.
“Where do I get my token?” Aurora asked as they descended from the noisy neon glare of the street to the dank depths of the station below.
“We don’t use those anymore. We use Metrocards,” Lindsay told her. “I’ll help you get one before I go.”
“You’re not taking the subway home too?”
“No, I’m going to walk,” she said, anxious to be alone with her thoughts now that the evening with Aurora was drawing to a close.
Yes, it was time to try to prepare herself for what she faced tomorrow.
Standing beneath a large wall map, pretending to be studying the network of subway lines, she watched Lindsay remove a fare card from the automated machine and hand it to Aurora.
Then Lindsay pointed at the row of turnstiles, obviously explaining how to get through them, then find her way down the stairs to the right track.
The place was a zoo even at this hour of the night. And she herself was intimidated. There were so many different numbered and lettered lines coming through this station that she couldn’t imagine how people figured out where they were going. She wondered how Aurora was ever going to find her way back to the hotel.
Lindsay was obviously not planning on accompanying her. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be giving such a detailed explanation. She kept emphatically indicating the overhead sign, as if trying to make sure Aurora understood exactly where she was supposed to go.
Finally, they both seemed satisfied, and they exchanged a long, tight hug.
She found herself feeling resentful, watching them.
They looked as though they cared so much about each other, even after all these years.
They never cared about me that way. They pretended to, like everyone else did, but they didn’t really care.
Nobody did. Not even Jake.
And toward the end, he didn’t even bother to pretend anymore.
Fury bubbled up inside her, and it took her a moment to realize that Lindsay had disappeared.
She looked around, trying to spot her in the crowd. No sign of her.
There, though, was Aurora, about to go through the turnstile, poking her fare card into the slot.
Ah, the turnstile failed to open.
Momentarily amused, she forgot to look for Lindsay. Instead, she watched Aurora bang on the turnstile, then kick it.
Still it didn’t open.
Aurora whirled around abruptly, as if hoping to find Lindsay still standing there.
Oh my God…
Shocked, she found herself locking eyes with Aurora despite the throng of people that bustled between them.
She sees me!
Relax, you’re wearing your disguise.
Yes, she was…but it didn’t seem to matter. There was no mistaking the flicker of recognition, then shock, in Aurora’s gaze.
Then a uniformed MTA officer materialized at Aurora’s side to check the turnstile, and she seized the opportunity to duck behind a nearby signpost.
Oh my God.
She definitely saw me.
Peering out from behind the sign, she watched as the officer leaned in and did something to the turnstile. It immediately opened.
Aurora faltered, glancing over her shoulder.
She’s looking for me.
The officer was gesturing impatiently for Aurora to hurry up and go through the turnstile, and several impatient locals waited behind her for their turns.
Helplessly, Aurora slipped through the turnstile with one last backward glance.
She still doesn’t see me…
No, but she did. She definitely did.
And you know exactly what you need to do about that.
What on earth was she doing here, in New York, of all places? Aurora wondered uneasily as she waited on the packed, cavernous platform for the next subway train to pull into the station.
Still unsettled by the unexpectedly familiar-yet unfamiliar-person she’d glimpsed upstairs, she tried somewhat unsuccessfully to ignore the hordes of strangers surrounding her down here.
She had never been entirely comfortable in crowds, and this was extreme. So many people, some passing so close they were practically touching her, some with terrible body odor, others speaking in various languages. There were crying babies and panhandlers shaking cups of change and someone, somewhere, was playing Van Morrison’s “Moon-dance” on a clarinet.
Maybe that wasn’t her upstairs, Aurora tried to convince herself, yet again.
But that didn’t work for more than a hopeful second or two.
It was her. Definitely.
She was wearing some kind of bizarre disguise. Her body was much heavier, and she had on a blond wig.
But her face was unmistakable.
And the look in her eyes…
God, that was scary.
Never before had Aurora seen her look that way. Darkly serious, almost…
That was why she kept trying to convince herself that it had been somebody else, standing there, watching.
Because it didn’t make sense for a friend to be looking at Aurora that way-much less be here in New York City at all, in fact.
Aurora stared blindly into the train tracks, wondering what she should do about what she had seen.
I’ll call Eddie the second I get back to my room and run it by him, she decided.
She always shared troubling developments with him first. Shared everything with him, really. Bad, good, exciting, scary.
Suddenly, she was fiercely homesick for her husband. For her house. For Portland.
Especially when she spotted movement amid the litter strewn over the rails just below the platform and realized it was a rat.
A real live rat.
Oh, God. This was too much. Aurora wanted nothing more than to go home.
Nothing was reassuringly familiar here, not with Tina so uncharacteristically wan, with Lindsay no longer at her side-and with her, up there in the station, looking eerily like a stranger.
Except a stranger wouldn’t have returned Aurora’s gaze so intently.
She shivered at the thought of that strange stare.
No, there was nothing familiar about New York on this night at all; she felt as though she had been dropped into an exotic foreign land-a war zone or something, because she had a vague, inexplicable sense of impending peril.
That’s just because you’re alone in a big city. Thirty-eight years old and you feel like you desperately need to hold somebody’s hand.
It was kind of pathetic, really.
I really am a bumpkin. That’s all it is. A bumpkin, and a baby.
Below, on the track, the rat scurried away abruptly and she felt, then heard, a distant rumble. It scared her for a moment-was it an earthquake? A terrorist attack?
Oh my God. Eddie…I’m so scared, Eddie.
Her heart pounded as the rumble grew steadily louder.
Dear God in heaven, Blessed Mother, please, please help me.
She looked up to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
That was all it was.
The subway train was roaring into the station.
Aurora instinctively stepped back from the edge of the platform as it approached-rather, she tried to.
Somebody was right behind her, of course-it was crowded. She felt herself being jostled. The person behind her was pressing up against her. Hard.
Panic worked its way into her throat as she realized she was too close to the edge.
She was losing her balance, and the train was coming, and she was falling, dear God, please, no, she was falling, and-
The last thing that went through Aurora Zephyr’s mind was that she wasn’t going to live to be a grandmother after all.
Saturday morning, Lindsay went to the gym first thing for her usual one-hour spinning class. Whenever she was stressed, she could count on finding relief there, mindlessly riding the stationary bike over imaginary mountain roads in the dark, music blasting.
But the exercise didn’t relieve her physical tension today, and it wasn’t mindless.
She kept seeing Wyatt’s face, and Leo’s.
Rather, seeing Leo’s as a younger version of Wyatt’s. In Lindsay’s mind’s eye, her son had morphed into the Wyatt she had known back in Oregon, tall and lean with a shock of black hair, flashing black eyes, and a smile like a sunburst.
The grown-up Wyatt still had that same smile, the same dark hair and eyes. But he was more muscular now; she had been able to see the masculine changes in his body even beneath the sleeves of his suit coat.
She hated that she still, even now, days later, found herself fantasizing about his biceps, pecs, and abs-about seeing him shirtless, or in nothing at all.
Let’s face it, she told herself as she stepped from the steamy shower in the gym’s locker room and reached for a towel, you’re hopelessly overdue for some physical…release. And not the kind you get in a spinning class.
It had been months since she and Isaac broke up; there had been no one since him. A few dates here and there, nobody she wanted to see more than once.
But it wasn’t just about Lindsay needing some kind of physical release.
It was about her needing Wyatt himself.
Why? Because he had been her first? Did you always long to repeat that experience, right down to the man with whom you had shared it?
Or was it something more?
Who are you kidding? she asked herself, wrapping the towel around her waist and padding back into the main locker room. Of course it was something more.
And it wasn’t just physical.
But none of that mattered-or was supposed to, anyway. As relationships went, she and Wyatt Goddard barely shared a past, and certainly not a future.
“Hey, Lindsay, how’ve you been?”
She looked up to see Amy, a casual friend from spinning class.
“Great,” she lied, “how about you?”
As she made small talk with Amy and got into her clothes, she couldn’t help but compare this slightly stilted conversation to the effortless one she’d had with Aurora last night.
They had picked up right where they’d left off, finding so many things to talk about that she was reluctant when the evening came to an end and she had to say good-bye.
The last thing she’d told Aurora, before she sent her off on the subway, was that she would plan on going to the reunion in July.
“Oh, Lindsay, really? That would be great. Everyone would absolutely love to see you.”
“I’d absolutely love to see them, too.”
She and Aurora had shared a big hug, one that left Lindsay overcome with unexpected emotion. She found herself with tears in her eyes and, embarrassed, hurried away quickly. She didn’t want Aurora to go home and tell everyone that she was a sentimental wreck.
That, however, was exactly what she was. Last night, and today.
But today wasn’t about her old girlfriends or stepping into a familiar, nostalgic past.
It was about stepping into a role she had both willingly and reluctantly abandoned-and a decision she had both regretted and celebrated.
No wonder she was tense.
“Did you hear that we’re supposed to get a big storm later?” Amy asked conversationally as, fully dressed, they both slung their duffel bags over their shoulders and headed for the door. “I’m so bummed. I was supposed to go boating on the Hudson this afternoon with this guy I’ve been seeing.”
“Well, hopefully it won’t happen and you’ll have smooth sailing.”
“I doubt it. It’s supposed to be really bad, wind, rain, maybe even hail.”
Lindsay found that hard to believe as she stepped out into the surprisingly hot May sunshine and walked the three blocks back to her apartment.
The first thing she did was book her plane reservations back to Portland for the reunion, and a room at the new Marriott not far from the school. She arranged to be there a week early, thinking she might be able to help the committee with some last-minute details. Event planning, after all, was what she did.
At least, that was her official excuse for arranging to spend so much time in her hometown. Really, she was anxious to indulge this wave of nostalgia.
All right, that was set.
Now what? She had a few hours still to kill before Wyatt’s car arrived.
It was too early to start getting ready yet, so she wandered around the apartment, watering plants, throwing away newspapers and junk mail, emptying the dishwasher.
She realized she was famished. She opened the fridge and reached past the carton of eggs for a container of yogurt.
Then it occurred to her that she could actually cook something. That would occupy her for a while.
In class this week, they had progressed from chopping and dicing to making simple omelets.
Lindsay didn’t have on hand many ingredients they had used, but she did have onions and tomatoes.
She washed and placed them on the counter, pulled out a cutting board, and hunted through her drawer for a suitable knife.
If you’re going to take this cooking stuff seriously, you’re really going to need to be better equipped, she told herself, at last locating a knife that looked closest to the one she’d used in class.
She began dicing the onion, trying to remember to use the technique she’d learned, but it wasn’t easy with this knife. The blade was much duller.
Not entirely dull, though. She found that out the hard way when it sliced into her forefinger.
“Ow!” She grabbed a dish towel and wrapped it to stanch the blood that poured from the painful wound, but it took a while. Every time she lifted the towel to check her finger, she saw that it was still bleeding profusely.
Finally, the flow subsided, and she winced as she cleaned the cut in the bathroom. She wondered if she might need stitches…but it was a Saturday. She’d have to go to the emergency room, and that, she knew from the notorious experiences of others, could take hours.
Which would mean postponing today’s meeting.
No. No way.
Better to let the wound heal and hope for the best.
Her finger bandaged, she returned to the kitchen, where she tossed partially chopped onion into the garbage and put away the eggs, tomatoes, and butter.
Then she opened a container of yogurt, flopped on the couch, and turned on the television.
It was tuned to the twenty-four-hour local news channel-pretty much the only thing she ever watched when she did bother to turn on the TV at night.
Whoa, Amy was right. Severe thunderstorms were expected late in the day.
Lindsay hoped it wasn’t an omen that this afternoon wouldn’t be smooth sailing for her meeting with Wyatt and Leo.
Come on…Do you really expect it to go off without a hitch?
There were too many emotions involved all around. Leo might be her own flesh and blood, but he was a stranger.
Wyatt might as well be a stranger, too.
She sighed, spooned some yogurt into her mouth glumly, and stared at the television. Above the news anchor’s left shoulder, an ominous graphic showed the black outline of a human figure and a train, with a red splotch between the two.
“A tragic accident last night-”
She’d had more than her fill of bloody injuries for one morning. She reached for the remote, deciding to find something a little more uplifting to watch before she got ready to go to Wyatt’s.
Maybe there was an old sitcom or a cooking show or something. Anything to take her mind off the day ahead.
“-beneath the streets of Manhattan as an unidentified woman was struck and killed by a-”
Lindsay aimed the remote and curtailed the anchor’s grim report, then channel-surfed until she came across a Steve Martin movie that was a few years old. She’d seen it and knew it had a happy ending.
Good. At least something would today.
She surveyed the array of items spread before her on the hotel desk.
A wallet filled with old pictures, some of family, but others of her friends. A small bottle of Aurora’s favorite perfume. A date book filled with notes pertaining to the upcoming reunion. Vanilla-flavored lip balm-not lipstick-the kind she had used back in high school. A brush that held strands of curly black hair.
She couldn’t wait to get it all back to Aurora’s locker beneath St. Elizabeth’s; what a wonderful and unexpected treasure trove to add to the collection.
There had been considerable cash in the wallet, which would come in handy today. She had, as usual, found someone who was willing to accommodate her request and keep his mouth shut about it. But he wanted a hell of a lot of money for his compliance.
So much money that she thought it would almost be easier to just steal a damned town car-or hire one and ask the driver to take her to a remote spot, then catch him off guard and get him out of the way.
Easier, perhaps, but far riskier.
She stashed Aurora’s cash in her purse. She had more than enough to pay the driver for the use of his car. She just hated to keep spending it this way. Life would be easier when she was back home, back in her element, not having to rely on strange people in a strange city.
Using a pair of nail scissors, she carefully snipped Aurora’s Oregon driver’s license, credit cards, and plastic hotel key into tiny pieces. She tucked those into a small plastic bag and put that in her purse, too. She would have to remember to toss it into a garbage can on the street when she left the hotel.
Those identifying items were the reason she’d grabbed Aurora’s purse from her shoulder as she fell. The longer it took to identify her, the more time she would buy for all that needed to be accomplished.
Shoving Aurora in front of an oncoming train wasn’t nearly as satisfying as it had been hacking into Haylie’s body, but it achieved a far more important goal.
Aurora had seen her, recognized her. She had to be stopped before she told someone-and the perfect opportunity had presented itself, which was a sign from God that this was meant to be.
The platform had been so jammed that it took a few seconds for anyone to realize someone had fallen in front of the train.
By the time she heard the inevitable commotion, she was halfway up the stairs. From there, it was easy to get out, lost in the crowd. She heard sirens wailing in the distance and saw uniformed transit authorities rushing for the track, but by that time, she was halfway to the street.
This morning on the news, she had seen coverage of the incident.
In a city like New York, it was eclipsed by other stories: the masked rapist who had been terrorizing women on the East Side, the mayor’s latest ribbon-cutting ceremony in Harlem, even the weather forecast.
Little airtime was devoted to the report about an unidentified woman who had fallen from a crowded subway platform at the Times Square station. Witnesses said it had been crowded down there, as always; Times Square was, after all, “the crossroads of the world,” as the reporter pointed out.
Nobody seemed to have seen anything suspicious; it was assumed that the poor woman, whoever she was, had simply lost her balance.
Perfect. Everything was just humming along, nobody piecing anything together yet. That would buy her some time.
She wondered how long it would take before Aurora’s daughter, who must have reported her mother missing by now, heard about the subway accident. How long before the police connected the missing tourist with the dead woman?
With any luck, it would be at least another day or two.
Just long enough to let me do what I have to do and get back home to Portland.
Of course, her work was cut out for her there as well.
Hopefully, there wouldn’t be further complications.
Wearily-she hadn’t slept well last night-she reached for the sunglasses she had picked up in Central Park the other day.
She put them on and studied her reflection in the mirror above the desk.
They were meant for a man; they masked most of her face.
Perfect, she thought again.
Looking out the fourth-story master bedroom window above Queens Boulevard, Leo reminded himself that he still had twenty minutes before the car was supposed to arrive.
He couldn’t help it, though; he was anxious to get moving.
He had been ready for over an hour, pacing the small apartment wearing his best suit-his only suit, purchased when he was a pallbearer for his grandmother’s funeral last year. The pants were too short now; about an inch of black sock was visible above his scuffed dress shoes. He had tried to polish those with little success; he had donned them to go to Saint Luke’s School every day of his senior year, then again for Grandma’s funeral-they were all but worn out. Tight, too, at a size twelve and a half.
Were your feet supposed to keep growing as you headed into your twenties?
He wondered if his father had big feet. His real father.
He’d be able to ask him today.
Come on, move, he thought, glancing at the hands of the clock on the bedside table. They seemed to be glued down.
It was an old-fashioned wind-up alarm clock he had won at a street fair a few years ago. It used to be beside his own bed, but he gave it to his mother for the master bedroom when his father-his adoptive father-moved out and took the digital one.
He found himself wishing that his father knew what he was doing today…and glad his mother did not.
She had taken his brother, Mario, into the city to visit Aunt Rose and Uncle Paul. She wanted Leo to go, too, but he told her he had to work.
He felt guilty about that-and even guiltier knowing she wouldn’t check up on him. Uncle Joe, who owned the pizzeria, was her ex-husband’s brother. She didn’t talk to that side of the family anymore.
But she didn’t stop Leo from working there. He needed the job, the money. And anyway, Uncle Joe was good to him. Better to him than his father had been.
He paced across the bedroom, then back again, coming to a halt before the window air-conditioning unit. He probably should turn it on, actually. It was pretty hot out today. Ma would appreciate coming home later to a nice, cool bedroom.
As he reached out to adjust the knob, he glanced down to the street again.
Hey, what do you know!
A sleek black town car had just pulled up to the curb.
Those were a rare sight in this neighborhood, especially on a Saturday.
And the car was early. But there was no reason not to head right out now, since it was here.
Leo had forgotten all about the air-conditioning and about his mother-his adopted one, anyway.
He hurried to the door, scarcely able to believe it was time to meet his birth parents at last.
He wondered, as he bolted down three flights of stairs, if they were going to live up to his expectations-and, more importantly, whether he would live up to theirs.
Unlike him, they’d had twenty years to imagine what he was like.
What if they don’t love me?
Love you? an inner voice scoffed. They don’t even know you.
And they don’t even love each other.
If they did, they’d be together now.
So much for that fantasy family you always dreamed of, he thought dismally as he hurried out onto the boulevard and the waiting car.
To his surprise, the driver was a woman.
He didn’t know why that caught him off guard; it shouldn’t have. But somehow, he had pictured an elegant male chauffeur, not a dumpy-looking lady in a black suit, cap, and almost ridiculously oversized sunglasses.
“How are you today?” she asked pleasantly, opening the back door for him.
“Good,” he said briefly, and slid into the backseat, trying to act as though he did this sort of thing every day.
As they headed north toward the Triborough Bridge, Leo didn’t give the driver, or the route she was taking, another thought.
He had no way of knowing that later, he would regret it.
Wyatt heard the crunch of car tires on the driveway and looked up from the New York Times he had been reading-rather, trying to read-in his recliner.
Through the tall window overlooking the manicured front lawn with its towering shade trees, he could see a shiny black town car pulling toward the house.
Lindsay should be first to arrive. He’d told her driver to get to her house a bit early and had scheduled the other driver to get to Queens a little later than expected.
He didn’t want to spend a lot of time alone with Lindsay before Leo arrived, but he did think it would only be right for them to face their son for the first time as a united front.
And, perhaps, to discuss just what it was that they hoped to get out of this meeting today.
He set the paper aside, rose from the door, and walked to the front entry hall. He caught sight of his reflection in a long mirror as he passed and was glad he had opted for casual clothing today.
He was wearing loafers, jeans, and a polo shirt. He looked comfortable and unintimidating, like any other suburban dad.
Funny, because that wasn’t what he was at all.
It’s just what I wish I could be.
No. No expectations. Whatever is meant to be will be.
Steeling himself, he opened the door and stepped out onto the covered porch. For a fleeting moment, he wondered what he would do if his son had somehow arrived first.
But it was Lindsay who emerged from the backseat of the town car.
Unaware that he was there watching her, she smoothed imaginary wrinkles from her pale green sleeveless dress and patted her dark hair, which was worn pulled back in a simple ponytail.
She’s nervous, he realized.
Somehow, that fact helped to put him more at ease.
She thanked the driver, turned toward the house, and stopped short, spotting Wyatt.
“Hi,” he said, wishing he had sunglasses on. He tried not to look her up and down, but there went those teenaged-boy hormones again.
“Hi.” She walked hesitantly toward him as the town car pulled away, and he remembered that he was the host.
“How was the drive up?” he asked cordially, as though he were greeting a new client.
“Fine. Was that your, um, driver?”
“No,” he said with a laugh. “That was a car service I hire sometimes, though. For clients, or when I have to go to the airport or something.”
“Oh.” She glanced up at the three-story white Colonial, with its black shutters and majestic pillars. “I thought maybe you ride around in a limo all the time.”
“Nope. I do my own driving.” He wasn’t about to tell her that his four-car garage held four luxury cars that, along with the others he kept in storage near his winter place near Daytona, were worth almost as much as he’d paid for this house.
He could see that she was impressed as it was by his surroundings-not because she wasn’t accustomed to such things, but more likely because she was. This was her world, and now he was a part of it.
But not in the ways that count, he thought as he held the door open and ushered her inside.
She looked around the entryway, with its sweeping staircase, framed artwork, and hardwood floors. “This is nice.”
“We can wait for him in the living room.”
“So he’s not here yet, then?” She looked relieved.
“No. But he should be soon.”
So neither of them could bring themselves to say their son’s name.
Or even just the word son.
He felt an unexpected bond with Lindsay as they sat down, somewhat stiffly, on the couch.
They both took care to keep a physical distance between them, but they were unmistakably in this together, whether they liked it or not.
“Thanks-what happened to your hand?” he asked, breaking a near silence punctuated by the ticking grandfather clock in the hall.
“Oh, this?” She lifted her bandaged finger. “I sliced into it with a dull knife this morning, trying to dice an onion.”
He winced. “Ouch. Why were you using a dull knife?”
“It was the only one I could find. I just started taking these cooking classes, and I thought I would give it a whirl at home, but I’m not exactly stocked up on the latest gourmet cutlery.”
“What kind of cooking classes are you taking?”
“Just the very basics. That’s right-you said you cook.”
“I do. Do you want anything to eat?” he remembered to ask belatedly.
“No, I’m good, thanks.”
“How about something to drink? Iced tea? Coffee? A shot of tequila?”
She looked up at him, startled, and he grinned. “Just kidding. Sorry. I couldn’t help it.”
She smiled back, to his surprise. “Too bad. I was going to take you up on it.”
“No…but it was tempting for a second there. I guess I’m a nervous wreck. How about you?”
“Me, too,” he admitted. “How are we going to handle this?”
The forbidden pronoun had popped out of him with surprising ease.
Which was interesting, because in all the time Allison had lived here-and in all the relationships that had preceded her-he’d had a hard time referring to himself as one half of a we.
“I don’t know,” Lindsay said slowly, and he couldn’t tell whether she was fazed by the we or the question itself.
“Have you talked to his mother? I mean, his adoptive mother.”
“I knew what you meant,” she said wryly. “No. I didn’t think it was my place. He’s over eighteen. And anyway, he asked me not to.”
“When I called him back to set up today’s meeting.”
“Oh.” For a moment there, he had thought she might have already met Leo on her own, without him.
But he knew instinctively that she wouldn’t do a thing like that.
He trusted her.
Which was ironic, considering what she had already gone and done behind his back, then kept from him all these years.
Wyatt was surprised to realize that he held no deep well of resentment about that. What he had felt had faded considerably these last few days.
That was because he not only trusted her, he ultimately understood her motives.
She had believed she was making the right choice, the unselfish choice, for their baby. In doing so, she had shown more strength than he had known she had.
More strength-more selflessness-than he would have had himself.
Admiration was slipping in to replace his anger, and he didn’t know how he felt about that.
Anger made it easier to keep her at arm’s length.
Now that she was, quite literally, at arm’s length, it was all he could do not to turn to her and pull her closer, if only in a comforting hug.
Instead, he said, “We should decide what we’re going to say when he gets here. You know…what each of us wants to come out of this.”
The each of us was meant to defuse the we. To show her that he didn’t expect them to be a we after today; that they would meet their son, then go their separate ways as they forged their own relationships with him. Not with each other.
“I don’t really know what I want,” Lindsay told him quietly. “Do you?”
“I guess it isn’t about what we want or need,” he replied. “It’s more about what he wants and needs. Right?”
“In that case, I guess all we can do is wait until he gets here.”
She nodded and settled back stiffly, arms folded.
So did Wyatt.
In the backseat of the town car, Leo was increasingly apprehensive.
According to the clock on the dash, it was almost three-thirty. They should have been there by now…shouldn’t they?
Maybe not. He didn’t know, after all, exactly where his father lived. But he was pretty sure it was supposed to be in Connecticut, and he didn’t think Connecticut was supposed to be in the middle of nowhere.
Which was pretty much where they were now.
They had gone from the interstate to a series of two-lane highways to what seemed like rutted back roads to him. He had expected fancy suburbs, not dumpy little towns that were increasingly few and far between, with mostly rural countryside separating them.
Now the driver made another turn and the rutted back road gave way to a wooded dirt road.
“Is this it?” Leo asked her, leaning forward over the seat.
“This is it,” she replied, and he found himself trying to catch a glimpse of her face in the rearview mirror.
He couldn’t see her eyes behind those big dark glasses, but her jaw seemed to be set resolutely.
He leaned back uneasily in the seat and glanced out the window.
Nothing but trees.
This couldn’t be right.
He looked again at the driver, who appeared to be searching for something. Maybe she thought they were lost, too.
He watched her turn her head