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Something wasn't right. Something besides the hot chocolate splashed across the cream-colored silk blouse and brown-linen slacks that twenty-nine-year-old Emma Sanderson had come home to change.
Pulling her key from the lock that Friday morning in early September, she stood just inside the open front door of her two-story townhome, allowing the screen door to close behind her. She listened. But heard nothing.
Was Rob home?
She was in a hurry to get back to the high school before study hall ended and twenty-two fifteen-year-olds converged on her American History class. So she'd parked her car in the driveway and come in by way of the front porch, rather than through the garage as usual.
Was someone in the house? Rob Evert, her fiance of two years, was attending an accounting seminar at a local college that morning. Besides, the sweet citrusy smell in the air wasn't something she associated with Rob.
With her finger on the pepper-spray tube attached to her key chain, Emma moved forward a couple of steps. She should probably head right back outside. Call the police.
Then she'd be late for class. She had to change.
And what criminal smelled like citrus?
There was no sign of forced entry.
Maybe, in the back of her mind, Emma knew she didn't need lawenforcement protection. Because if she thought she did, she'd be outside and on the phone. Immediately. She wasn't a risk-taker.
But then, she wasn't going to let the past rob her of her present and future, either. Not anymore. Not since the phone calls she'd received over the past month from a Comfort Cove detective, Ramsey Miller.
Miller's news had upended her world. Frank Whit-tier, the man she'd spent two years adoring and the next twenty-five years hating, was not guilty of abducting her baby sister. All this time she'd blamed him .
Slipping out of her low-heeled pumps because she had to change her pants, Emma crept up the stairs. Someone could be up there.
Probably not. She was overreacting to the citrusy smell.
It was her house. She wasn't going to let paranoia run her out of the home she owned, the home shared with her fiance.
Hugging the fall-foliage wallpapereverything was fall for Emma, since the fall day Claire had disappearedshe listened as she rose slowly to the second floor.
Definite rustling sounds came from the upper region of her home. As if someone was moving around, but not opening drawers or closets. Or throwing things.
Her mother, who lived nearby, had a key, but Mom wouldn't stop in without asking permission first. And, as the principal of a local school, Rose Sanderson was at work.
The only other person who had a key, besides Emma, was Rob. And he'd lied to her once before about his attendance at a seminar. He'd sworn he'd never lie to her again. She'd believed him enough to let him move in with her.
But she didn't fully trust him.
Her issue. One she was working on.
Their bedroom was the first door on the left. It had its own attached bath. The second bedroom and smaller bath were to the right.
She looked that way first. Surely the intruder wasn't in her room.
At the top of the stairs, Emma paused, flicking her long dark curls back over her shoulder, suddenly questioning the wisdom of her actions. The rustling was louder, but steady. A familiar rhythm. Clearly she hadn't been discovered yet.
And then she heard the familiar moan. Short, staccato, deep in the throat. Followed by a longer, louder, expression of relief. The moan she'd thought had been particular to her. The one only she could elicit.
He was in their room. For a brief second, as she rounded the corner toward the open door, Emma wondered if he was alone. Hoped he was.
If so, she could slip away, pretend she hadn't seen, and they could continue to.
The woman was on the bottom, her naked backside sinking into the freshly laundered gold sheets Emma had just put on the queen-size bed that morning. Blond hair splayed across Emma's pillow.
The other woman was looking at her.
On another day, any day previous to the last phone call from Ramsey Miller, Emma would have turned around and left Rob to get his mess cleaned up and out of their house.
And then, when enough time had passed to take away the sting of his betrayal, she'd have listened patiently while he expressed his self-condemnation and regret. She'd have let him beg. And then she'd have taken him back.
This wasn't the first time he'd been unfaithful to her. But it was the first in their bed. In her home. The first since he'd put the huge diamond ring on her finger.
At least the first she knew of.
Thoughts sped through Emma's mind as she stood frozen and watched the slender long legs disentangle themselves from the man and the sheets.
Rob rolled to his side and Emma pulled the ring off her left hand. He noticed her standing there.
The instant consternation on his face couldn't have been faked. Nor could the sorrow in his eyes.
"Emma, baby, I "
Ignoring the woman who was in Emma's peripheral vision pulling on sweatpants and a T-shirt, Emma approached the bed and held out the ring to Rob.
"I see she dressed up for the occasion," she said calmly, as if they were discussing what color to paint the bedroom walls.
"Emma, please " Rob, looked at her pleadingly, holding the sheet around his naked midsection despite the fact that both women in the room clearly knew what the covered parts looked like. He didn't reach for the ring. But he'd expect it back. He was an accountant. Money mattered.
She placed the two-carat promise on the corner of the dresser. Grabbed a hanger out of the closet that held one of her three-piece suitsthe tailored black slacks and jacket and red short-sleeved blousegrabbed her most expensive black pumps and marched toward the door.
"I'm going back to work," she said, facing the open door, effectively blocking the blond woman's escape. "I'll go straight to Mom's afterward, spend the night there and return here in the morning to meet a locksmith who will be changing the locks." She owned the place. She could do this. "You have until then to clean out anything of yours you want to keep. The furniture all stays. The payments you helped make are in lieu of rent for the past two years."
She heard her voice and wondered at the woman speaking. She didn't recognize a thing about her. But, damn, her words felt good.
She heard scrambling behind her, a thump as Rob's feet landed on the floor, and then his footsteps behind her.
Head high, she just kept walking. Down the stairs. Out the front door. Knowing he couldn't follow her. He hadn't had time to pull on his pants.
In a nearby gas-station bathroom, as she changed her clothes, Emma crumpled, half dressed, on the toilet. She started to cry. To panic. To hurt.
But she didn't go back.
And that afternoon, when she left school, she didn't back down.
The funeral was so crowded that early September Friday afternoon that more than half the attendees had to stand. Forty-year-old Chris Talbot was one of those standing, holding his place in a back corner of the big old Comfort Cove church with shoulders grown thick from a lifetime of lobstering. Fishing was a dangerous business. The most dangerous in the world if you believed what you saw on television.
To Chris it was a way of life. The only way of life.
It had been that way for Wayne Ainge, too, though Chris had barely known the young man whose funeral he'd given up a day of work to attend. Wayne was only twenty. He'd arrived in Comfort Cove from Alaska that summer. Had signed on with one of Chris's competitors. And three days ago he'd gotten his foot tangled up in a trapline and was pulled from his boat to the bottom of the ocean. He'd drowned before anyone could get to him.
The accident had not been the boy's fault. It hadn't been anything he could prevent. A wind had come up, a wave, just as he'd been hoisting a trap overboard, forcing him into one small step to keep his balance. The one small step had cost him his life.
His wasn't the first industry death, by a long shot.
But it was Comfort Cove's first in more than fifty years. The first in Chris's lifetime.
Wayne's father spoke. His brother did, too. A man of the clothChris wasn't a churchgoing man so he wasn't sure if the man was a priest or pastor or whatread from the Bible and asked them all to pray.
Chris bowed his head out of respect for Wayne's family, who'd flown in from Alaska to bury their son where he'd said his heart wasthe Atlantic Ocean. And then, as people began to file out, he shook hands with his fellow fishermen and their families.
None of them looked one another in the eye.
Every fisherman knew that any one of them could be in that casket up there. It was only by the grace of God that they made it safely home each day.
"What's wrong?" Fifty-six-year-old Rose Sanderson frowned. The expression did nothing to mar her exquisite beauty. Just as all the years of anguish had never done.
As long as Emma didn't look in her mother's eyes. There wasn't a lot of beauty there anymore. Only worry. Angst. Sadness. And pain.
"Sit down, Mom." Emma pulled out one of the metal-rimmed Naugahyde chairs in her mother's kitchenchairs that matched the metal-rimmed Formica-topped table that had been in that same exact place in the same exact house for the past twenty-five years.
Emma had been able to convince her mother to update the rest of the house over the years. But not that table. It was the last place that Rose had seen her baby girl alivekneeling on one of those chairs at that table eating her breakfast like a "big people."
Rose wouldn't change that table, and she would never moveno matter how much the neighborhood changed. Rose couldn't leave the only place Claire would know to come back to.
As though she would remember; Claire had been two when she was abducted.
Rose's crystalline blue eyes were wide and worried as Emma sat and folded her hands at the table. "Tell me."
She had to tell her mother about Detective Miller's phone calls. Most particularly the last one.
She'd been deliberating for a couple of days about what she was going to say.
Tonight, with Rob's infidelity a fresh and burning sting, she couldn't seem to find the usual decorum, the caution, with which she couched everything she told her mother.
She didn't recognize herself in the woman who was pushing her to do something more. To be something different.
To change what Rose wouldn't have changed.
"I've spent my entire life playing it safe." They weren't the words she'd come to say.
Rose's frown deepened. "What do you mean?"
"I settle," Emma said. "Or maybe I don't, I don't know." This was her mother. She could only say so much.
Or stray too far from herself
She was in no state to tell her mother about Ramsey Miller's phone callabout the horrible mistake she and Rose had made, believing all these years that Frank Whittier, her mother's fiance at the time, had abducted Claire.
"I broke up with Rob today." And that was not a mistake. No matter how badly Rose took the news.
Rose's eyes held a spark of something as she watched Emma, saying nothing. But the woman wasn't falling apart so Emma continued.
"I came home and found him with another woman in our bed. I gave him until tomorrow morning to get out." Rose nodded.
Her mother's expression wasn't crumpling. Or, worse, filling with fear. She almost had a hint of a smile on her face. And she was nodding!
Had the whole world gone mad? Or only Emma's portion of it?
"What? You knew he was seeing someone?"
"Of course not. I'd have told you if I'd known that. I just knew he wasn't right for you."
That almost made her angry. As angry as she could ever get with the woman who'd suffered so horribly. And tried so hard to love Emma enough. "You thought Rob was wrong for me?"
"Yes." Rose squeezed her hand. "But regardless of what I thought, you loved him and you most definitely didn't deserve to be cheated on. I know it hurts and I'm so sorry about that."
Shaking her head, Emma ignored the compassion in her mother's voice. This was no time to open her heart and give in to the weakness therea desperate need to be loved, in spite of everything.
She was better off if she kept her walls up.
"Why didn't you say anything?" She concentrated on the facts that perplexed more than they caused pain.
"Because I knew you'd figure it out on your own and that you would be so much stronger for having done so. Acting on my say-so could have crippled you."
"I'd have married him, Mom." If Rob hadn't kept putting off choosing a date. A location. Colors. Anything at all to do with them actually saying "I do," rather than just "I'm going to."
Rose shook her head. "I don't think so."
"But if I had? You'd have let me?"
Rose studied her and then said, "I'm not sure. There was always the chance that I was wrong."
"You liked him. From the first time we met him at that fingerprinting clinic, you liked how he took a real interest in our quest."
"He was a big help. And had good ideas. He was a pleasant conversationalist, but that doesn't mean I thought he'd make you happy. I did like that he kept you here in the area, close by. I liked that he was willing to spend time with us together. That we could do family things."
A given. Rose had lost one daughter. And ever since that day, until Emma had met Rob, it had always been just the two of them.
"I'm not going to leave you, Mom, you know that," Emma said. "Not for anything, or anyone." But for the first time, the words didn't flow from her heart as easily as they flowed past her throat.
For the first time, she wished, just for a second, that she could be as free as other women her age.
And then, ashamed of herself, she gave her mother a hug.
Emma missed Claire like she'd miss an arm or a leg. And she'd only been four when her little sister had been taken. Rose, a single mother who'd lost her baby, had suffered so much more.
Emma's job, as the one left behind, was to be there for Rose. Period.