Authors: Sharon Sala
She moved to the windows and looked out into the night. The sky was cloudless, the stars countless. A half-moon cast a blue-white glow onto the dark vista before her. She shivered, and in that moment realized she was no longer alone.
“Are you okay?”
She turned. Bud was walking toward her.
“Yes. I just couldn’t sleep.”
He slid an arm across her shoulder and gave her a quick hug, something he’d done a thousand times, and yet for some reason tonight it felt different.
“Change is hard, and everything is changing, isn’t it?”
“It won’t be forever. You’ll see. It’s just that Andrew’s death revealed a lot of secrets. As soon as you and your sisters get answers, you’ll all be back.”
Holly sighed. “It’s just me. You know how I hate change.”
Bud laughed softly and gave her another quick squeeze. “Yes, I do. I remember you wearing a pair of boots a size too small for almost three months because you liked them so much and didn’t want to tell Andrew you’d outgrown them.”
Holly chuckled. “Oh, my gosh! I’d forgotten that. How old was I? About twelve?”
“Thirteen. You were thirteen. I remember because Andrew bought you another pair just like them for your thirteenth birthday.”
“I can’t believe you remembered something so silly.”
“I remember lots of stuff about you.”
Holly started to smile, but Bud wasn’t smiling. He just kept looking at her, as if he were waiting for something. Suddenly she shivered, then looked away, unwilling to acknowledge that there might be anything beyond the obvious in his statement.
Bud knew she was uneasy, and the last thing he wanted was to scare her. It was time to change the mood.
“I think here’s where we decide to raid the refrigerator,” he said.
Grateful for the change of subject, Holly laughed. “You just want more chocolate pie.”
“Damn, woman. You know me too well.”
They walked into the kitchen, laughing and talking, turning on lights as they went. Pie was eaten. Dishes went into the sink. And the emptiness in Holly’s heart was momentarily filled. They parted company in the hallway, with Bud giving her a quick kiss on the cheek.
“’Night, sugar. Sleep well. You’ve got a long day ahead of you tomorrow.” And then he went into his room.
Holly sighed as the door closed behind him. She could still feel the imprint of his lips on her face as she crawled in bed and closed her eyes.
The single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling cast a yellow-orange glow in the basement, but she was headed straight toward a brighter line of light beneath the door to Daddy’s workroom. The room they weren’t allowed to go in. She could smell the scent of fresh-cut wood mingling with another, less appealing, scent. Something was dead. Maybe a mouse caught in one of the traps. She could hear her daddy working methodically, sanding the wood to a smooth, satin finish, then hammering, hammering. She opened the door.
He spun, a look of shock, then rage, spreading across his face as he realized he was no longer alone.
“Get out, Goddammit!”
Holly gasped, then sat straight up in bed. Her heart was pounding so hard that at first she didn’t realize her alarm was going off.
Her stomach lurched, and for a second she thought she was going to be sick, but as the crazy dream passed, so did the feeling.
“Lord. That’s what I get for eating pie right before I go to bed,” she muttered, as she shut off the alarm and began scrambling out of bed.
This was a momentous morning, and she had a plane to catch.
After that, time flew.
A quick shower and choosing clothes for the road. A hasty breakfast, and a last-minute checklist to make sure she had everything she needed. All too soon, they were on their way to the airport. It only added to Holly’s panic. Her gut instinct was still telling her not to go. She didn’t want to leave the ranch—
Despite Holly’s insistence on driving, Bud had ignored her and gotten behind the wheel. The bandage was still on his hand, but the pain wasn’t too bad if he didn’t put pressure on it. He couldn’t put into words what he was feeling, but fear topped the list.
He’d read everything he could find online about the murders linked to the man the media had dubbed the Hunter. He tried not to think about that man also being Holly’s birth father. After what he’d learned, the only reason he hadn’t ignored her demand to go alone was because so many years had passed and no new murders had been linked to the Hunter. Knowing that, he couldn’t help but believe the man was either dead or had long since moved on.
The fact that the woman he loved still didn’t know how he felt—might never know—left him with a sick, empty feeling, as if his life were on hold. The only thing he did know was that he wasn’t going to be the one to mess up their relationship. If all she ever wanted from him was the brotherly, family-friend relationship they had now, then so be it.
He glanced at the clock on the dashboard, then increased speed. Check-in at Missoula International Airport wasn’t usually an issue, but he didn’t want to add to her nervousness by making her have to run for her gate. Then he noticed her digging through her purse and wondered if she’d forgotten something.
“You doing okay?” he asked.
“Yes, just double-checking,” Holly said. “Remember, I left my hotel information on the notepad in the kitchen. Don’t forget to take extra food to the barn to feed that old mama cat, since she’s due to have babies soon. And have the hands do the heavy work until your hand has healed. If—”
Bud interrupted her. “Dang it, Holly, I am a fully grown man. I can figure this out by myself. Just do what you have to do and quit worrying about everything else, okay?”
Holly tried a smile, but the anger in his voice was unsettling. She couldn’t bear to leave him on a sour note.
“Are you mad at me about something?”
He sighed. “Lord no. I’m just feeling sorry for myself and worried about you, okay?”
“Okay,” Holly said, and settled back.
When they finally reached the airport, Bud drove up to the departure area, popped the trunk and got out to help.
The chill of the early-morning air was sharp. Holly shuddered as she stepped out of the car and shouldered her purse, but she wasn’t fast enough to beat Bud to the trunk.
“I can do it,” she said when he started to lift her suitcase out of the trunk. But he ignored her and hefted it out with one hand. “Okay, I’m duly impressed at how strong you are.”
Bud sat the suitcase on the curb and then turned around to face her.
Holly started to tease him but was suddenly silenced by the look on his face. Then she saw him take a deep breath, and within seconds the expression was gone and his familiar smile was back in place.
“Don’t come inside with me,” Holly said. “I’m afraid I’ll cry in front of everyone when it’s time to go.”
Bud’s heart dropped, but he made himself smile. “So, am I going to get my goodbye hug?” He opened his arms.
Holly walked into his embrace and laid her cheek against his chest, struggling against the urge to cry as he wrapped his arms around her and hugged her close. For a second she thought about throwing herself on his mercy and begging him to love her.
“I’m going to miss you,” Holly said, as she leaned back to meet his gaze.
Bud saw her lips part, and the urge to kiss them nearly felled him. Instead, he made himself smile again.
“I’m going to miss you, too, sugar. Promise me you’ll be careful, that you won’t take crazy chances…and that you’ll call me. With all three of you gone, I swear to God I’m going to get ulcers.”
Holly grinned. “I will. I promise.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “’Bye, Bud.” She pointed at his bandage. “And be careful.”
“I will if you will,” he said, then glanced back at the traffic. “I’m going to have to move.”
When he walked away, Holly began to panic, but she couldn’t let it show. Instead of throwing herself into his arms and begging him to take her back home, she smiled.
“Drive safely,” she called after him. “I’ll call as soon as I get to the hotel.”
“Call my cell in case I’m not in the house. I don’t want to miss you.”
“Will do,” Holly said, and then rolled her suitcase to the curbside check-in as Bud got into the car.
She turned around and watched until he was out of sight, then took her place in line and told herself it was the chill of the wind making her eyes water, not a fresh set of tears.
Lambert—St. Louis International Airport
The flight across country had been mostly monotonous. She’d tried to sleep, but she’d never been able to sleep sitting up. She’d read a few chapters in the book she’d brought with her but had no idea of what she’d read. The journal was in her bag. She could have read it again, but for some reason she didn’t want anyone watching her read it for fear she might cry. That was all she felt like doing. The closer she got to her destination, the more uneasy she became. When they landed, she was on the verge of tears with no explanation, but she blinked them away as they began to disembark.
Out of nowhere, a shudder ran up Holly’s back as she stepped off the plane. A little startled, she looked up the walkway toward the terminal, fearing something ominous awaited her just beyond the doorway. Then she chalked up the moment to exhaustion and stress, and moved forward.
But the feeling of uneasiness stayed with her all the way through the terminal, while she reclaimed her suitcase at baggage claim, even after she picked up her rental car. It felt as if every instinct she had was telling her to run, to go back where she’d come from, but Andrew hadn’t raised his girls to be quitters.
Her budget rental car was minus GPS, so after a quick study of the city map provided by the rental company, it became apparent that the airport was farther outside the city than she’d expected. As she left the airport, she began watching for the access road that would take her onto Interstate 70, then got on it and headed southeast toward the city.
Her hotel reservation was at the Jameson Regency near the Arch. According to her directions, the hotel was on Chestnut Street just off I-70 and across the highway from the banks of the Mississippi River, so she drove with a careful eye on the traffic, while still watching for landmarks and street signs. As she drove, she kept looking for something that felt familiar, but it didn’t happen.
She had no trouble finding the hotel, but only because she knew where she was going from the map. She’d seen the Arch, St. Louis’s most famous landmark, from miles away. It, of course, did look familiar, but only because she’d seen it countless times in photos, not because it was something she remembered from childhood.
When she reached the hotel she dropped her car off at valet parking, then let the bellman take her suitcase and followed him into the hotel. The vivid colors of the lobby furnishings and the white marble walkway leading up to the registration desk were a big change from the hardwood floors and wood paneling of the ranch house. She remembered reading about the hotel’s recent renovations online when she’d made her reservations. The place was beautiful, even elegant, but if she’d had to choose, she would have picked the warm wood and Native American art back home.
Once she’d checked in, she followed another bellman to the bank of elevators, then up to the sixth floor.
“Room 663,” he said, as he took her key card and ran it through the lock.
Holly tipped him as he left, then locked herself in and moved to the windows overlooking the Mississippi. The current was slow, the water dark. At that point, another shiver ran through her.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” she muttered. “Please, God, don’t let me get sick. That’s the last thing I need, okay?”
She turned her back on the view and began unpacking. It was a constructive task that needed to be done, and she needed to stay busy to keep from thinking about what lay ahead.
As soon as she finished, she grabbed her phone. She’d promised to call Bud as soon as she got to the hotel, and she needed to keep her promise or he would worry. Just as she began to punch in the numbers, she dropped the phone. It hit the carpet with a muffled thump. When Holly reached to pick it up, she noticed that her hands were shaking. She sat down on the bed and once again started to make the call, but the numbers suddenly blurred before her eyes. Angry that her emotions were so out of control, she swiped at the tears and retried the numbers. Halfway through, she hit a wrong digit.
She tossed back her head and took a deep breath, but it turned into a sob. She shoved her hands through her hair in a short, angry motion, then swiped the tears from her face as she jumped to her feet and began to pace.
“What’s wrong with me? Am I having a breakdown? Is there something in my subconscious warning me I made a mistake in coming back?”
There was a full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door, and when she caught her own reflection she was shocked by what she saw. It was the same heart-shaped face she’d looked at all her life, the same thick auburn hair, the same green eyes.
But her skin was pale, her eyes wide, as if in shock. There was a muscle jerking at the corner of her mouth, and she felt like throwing up. She laid the flat of her hand against the mirror…hand-to-hand with a stranger, both of them mute.
Then, suddenly, Holly wasn’t looking in a mirror, she was looking down into a darkened cellar. A man’s face appeared abruptly at the bottom of the stairs, like a ghost that had failed to completely materialize.
“If you tell, I’ll make you sorry.”
Her cell phone rang, and the image disappeared. Holly shuddered. Had that been a memory, or something out of a waking nightmare born of stress and despair? She stumbled back toward the bed and grabbed it like a dying man reaching for Jesus.
“Hey, sugar, you’re there. I was beginning to worry.”
Holly crawled up onto the bed, holding the phone close to her ear as she struggled to regain her composure.