Anne Stuart loves Japanese rock and roll, wearable art, Spike, her two kids, Clairefontaine paper, quilting, her delicious husband of thirty-four years, fellow writers, her three cats, telling stories and living in Vermont. She’s not too crazy about politics and diets and a winter that never ends, but then, life’s always a trade-off. Visit her at www.Anne-Stuart.com.
It was raining again. Of course it was, Rachel thought, peering up through the window at the gray, listless sky as her husband's black BMW pulled into their driveway. In Silver Falls, Washington, it was either raining, about to rain or just had finished raining. Even on an otherwise still night you could hear the rush of the thundering falls up on Silver Mountain, the roar of the water leaching into your brain until you felt as if you were drowning.
It was little wonder she had this sense of impending doom. There were any number of scientific studies proving the depressing effect of sunless days on human nature. She was used to the hot, sunny climates where she and her daughter had lived during the past ten years. She was simply having a hard time with rain, and gloom and shadows. She'd adapt. Everyone was moving to the Pacific Northwestshe'd grow to love it sooner or later.
She smoothed the discreet black shift down over her full hips, her hands restless. David wasn't going to be happy with hershe'd missed another appointment with the lawyer, she'd failed to meet him at his office and she'd let Sophie spend the night with friends on a school night rather than attend Stephen Henry's reading. David wouldn't argue with her, of course. Not David. He would look terribly disappointed, and that was far more effective than any number of screaming tantrums.
The thought of mild-mannered David throwing a tantrum was enough to make her grin. He pulled the BMW to a stop exactly two and a half feet from the garage, opened the door and stuck out his black umbrella, unfurling it before he stepped out of the car into the light mist. He caught Rachel's smile, and he smiled back, though his expression was tinged with that damnable, omnipresent disappointment.
"You missed our three-o'clock meeting at the lawyer's," he greeted her, clinking cheekbones with her in a ritual sign of affection. "I thought you were going to make sure you got there."
Guilt annoyed her, but she felt it anyway. "I'm so sorry, David," she said, trying to sound penitent. "I just got caught up in work." Which was a lie. She'd looked up at the faint glow of her watch in the darkroom, saw that she had plenty of time to get to their appointment and then promptly ignored it.
"This is the third time, Rachel," he said with utmost patience. "Are you having second thoughts about letting me adopt Sophie? It was your idea in the first place."
That wasn't exactly how Rachel remembered it, but she didn't bother correcting him. Being married meant making compromises, being tactful, something she could always work on.
"Don't be ridiculous," she said. "There's nothing I want more than for us to be a family. I just get distracted."
He reached out and brushed an affectionate hand through her tangled red hair. "Always a dreamer, aren't you, Rachel?" he said, some of the disapproval vanishing. "Your daughter's more responsible than you are."
She took an instinctive step backward, trying to push her wild hair back into a semblance of order. David was a lovely man, but he had an unfortunate tendency to be ever so slightly patronizing. "I'm perfectly responsible when it's important," she said, keeping the edge out of her voice.
"And my adopting Sophie isn't important?" The disappointment was back in full, and Rachel bit back an instinctive retort. He hated it when she was bitchy, and she hated it as well. For Sophie's sake, most of all.
But then, Sophie wasn't there at the moment.
"You know it is, David. But there isn't any hurry, is there? We've only been married four months, and I don't know about you but I'm planning to stay married for the next fifty years. There's no need to rush into anything." She tried her most winning smile, the smile that had first caught his eyes six months ago in San Francisco, even if it was a little tight around the edges.
"Of course not," David said easily. That was what she'd first loved about him. His ability to take things in stride, including her temper. "Are you ready to go? We're running late as it is. You know how my father likes to have his audience gathered before he launches into a reading."
"I know," she said, glumly, unable to summon up much more enthusiasm. David's father, Stephen Henry Middleton, professor emeritus of Silver Falls College, self-styled poet laureate of the Pacific Northwest, should have been a welcome part of the package. She hadn't known any kind of father for the past thirteen years, not since she'd been kicked out of the house for being seventeen and pregnant, and Stephen Henry was born to be a patriarch. He doted on an unappreciative Sophie and managed just the right amount of decorous flirting with his daughter-in-law. Maybe it was Sophie's hidden dislike that tipped her off. Her daughter always had had far better instincts than she had.
"I'm ready," she said, plastering on her best smile.
David took a spotless white linen handkerchief from his elegant suit, reached up and wiped her lipstick off her mouth. "There," he said with a sigh of satisfaction. "That's much better. Aren't you going to change your shoes?"
She'd loved that bright slash of color on her mouth, but marriage was give and take, and she knew David didn't like makeup. She must have done it subconsciously, just to annoy him. She really had to stop doing things like that or she'd never settle in.
She looked down at her shoes. She was still wearing the two-inch heels that put her a good three inches taller than David's blond head. They were the brightly colored espadrilles she'd picked up in Mexico, with straps around the ankles that made her strong legs look sexy. She sighed. "Sorry, I forget," she said, kicking them off and going in search of the ballet slippers he preferred. He followed her, shoes in his hand. "Sorry," she said again, grabbing the plain black flats. She had a weakness for shoes, and she always left them all over the place, and David was always picking them up. He moved past her, placing them in the labeled cubby hole of the custom closet that both delighted and intimidated her with its strict organization, then held out his arm.
"I told her she could spend the night at Kristen Bannister's. You know what a math wonk she is she promised to help Kristen understand the bizarre properties of God knows what, and I knew we wouldn't want to be late."
Just the faintest flash of impatience on David's handsome face, gone almost as it appeared. "There are times I think you married me for the math program here in town."
"Of course not. Just because her gift for math makes me feel like the village idiot doesn't mean I'd run off with the first man who had access to an accelerated math program. I had no idea the local high school was so good."
"I told you," he pointed out. "When you were having trouble helping her. Homeschooling can only take you so far."
"I married you for you, David," she said firmly. "How can you doubt it?"
"I don't," he said, looking happier. "It's just that my father adores Sophie and he doesn't see her often enough."
But Sophie didn't adore his father. "Schoolwork comes first, don't you agree?"
"Of course." As a college professor he couldn't very well say anything else. "We'll have to bring her over for dinner some time this week to make up for it."
"Of course," Rachel said. Sophie would go if she asked her to. But Rachel hadn't lived thirty years, half of them on her own, without learning how to get what she wanted. After all, she was doing this for Sophie, giving her a sane life away from the nomadic travels that had suddenly turned tragic, giving her access to the kind of school that would nurture her extraordinary gift. Sophie had better things to do than cater to the overweening vanity of an aging academic.
Then again, Rachel had better things to do herself, and yet she was going off, the perfect faculty wife in the perfect little college town where it never stopped raining and she felt like she was slowly suffocating .
"Are you all right?" David said, his voice soft with concern. "You clutched my arm."
"Just a hand cramp, darling. I've been working too hard."
He smiled at her fondly. "I love it that you've kept up with your photography, but you know you don't have to. I make more than enough for both of us."
They'd had this discussion before, and they'd probably be still arguing about it on their deathbeds, seventy happy years from now. She shoved her hair back from her face. "It's not about the money, David. It's who I am."
He led her out into the damp night, closing the door of the house behind him and double locking the door. He'd left no lights onhe was religious about saving electricity. "And what you are is perfect," he said. "Do you mind us taking your car? Mine still smells from that run-in with a dead deer."
"Of course. Do you want me to take your car and get it washed tomorrow?"
He shook his head. "You know how silly I am It's my baby, and I hate to have anyone else touch it, even you, darling. I'll see to it. I can use the Range Rover until then."
David loved his Range Rover with an Anglophile's passion, andit seldom saw the lightof day. It usually sat in state in David's immaculate garage.
She said nothing. David had his life arranged to perfection, and who was she to argue? So she merely smiled indulgently, tucked her perfect little evening bag under her perfect arm, and got in the car with her perfect husband. It was going to be a long night.
Caleb Middleton ducked beneath the tarp that covered what should have been the hallway in his house and headed into the half-finished bathroom. He expected that the plumbing would have died, but he turned the faucet and rust-colored water dribbled out, slowly at first, then turning into a steady stream. He turned on the showerno hot water, of course, but the gravity-fed pump was workingand he stripped off his muddy clothes and shoes and stepped in.
He didn't close his eyes. He could still see her body, trapped in the branches. He'd called the police, anonymously, but Maggie Bannister wouldn't have any trouble tracking his cell phone. And then the questions would begin, and he'd lie, and no one would believe him. Maggie had always kept a distrustful eye on him when she was a simple beat copnow that she was the sheriff she'd be even more likely to think the worst of him.
There was even a musty towel in the open shelves under the sink. He pulled it out, to find that something had eaten a large hole in it. It didn't matter. He dried himself and pulled on clean clothes, then picked up the muddy ones and wrapped them in the towel. If it ever stopped raining long enough he'd burn them. Otherwise he'd bury them and forget about it. If he could.
In the years he'd been gone his half-finished house hadn't been abandonedthere was a pile of firewood and kindling by the woodstove, dozens of empty beer bottles and an ashtray full of roaches. Teenagers must have used the place for a makeout spot. He didn't mindhe would have done the same. Had done the same.
He walked across the rough floors to the front of the living room and looked down over the town of Silver Falls. The clouds hung low, but he could see the outlines of the college campus where his brother and father worked, the streets of the small town laid out in perfect order. The waterfall was up behind him, and he could hear it roaring down over the steady sound of rain. After years in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan he should have welcomed the rain.
It smelled like death to him. Death and decay and despair. They were part of his everyday life, and yet here, in a peaceful little town, death was stronger than in the war zones where he worked.
He was here to face death, and the questions that had always plagued him, questions that he'd avoided finding the answers to. But that had changedhe couldn't hide from the ugly truth any more. Starting with the dead woman caught in the branches at the bottom of the falls.
Maybe he shouldn't have called the cops, but he couldn't just leave her there. He stared out at the curtain of rain that separated his half-finished house from the rest of the world. He'd need to get his generator up and running, he'd need to replace the wind-shredded tarp that flapped in the wind. He'd need to do any number of things before he headed back down the mountain to find his father and brother.
And this time he wasn't going to leave until he found the truth. Even if it was as bad as it could possibly be, as horrifying as he'd always feared, he'd face it. You could only run for so long, and now that there was a new member in his happy little family, he couldn't wait any longer. David had done the unthinkable and gotten married. His father had written him in one of his cryptic letters.
And Caleb could no longer pretend that something very bad wasn't going on in this gloomy, tight-assed little town.
Sophie Chapman shoved her blond hair back and made a face at her best friend Kristen. At least there were a few good things about this rain-soaked, godforsaken place, and Kristen was right there at the top of the list. In her thirteen years, Sophie had been in more countries than most people saw in a lifetime, and she had an easy time of making friends. She and Kristen had been soul mates from the moment they met at Silver Falls Union High School, and they'd been almost inseparable ever since. Sophie was the math whiz, Kristen was the brilliant writerthey complemented each other's skills perfectly. Kristen's mother, the sheriff of this gloomy town, was down-to-earth, no-nonsense and surprisingly easygoing, and she got along very well with Sophie's mother.