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Welcome to Cozumel, the flight attendant had said as the jet taxied to a stop. The uniformed men armed with deadly weapons between the plane and the terminal weren't Cate Calloway's idea of a perfect welcoming party, but their presence didn't unnerve her as it had on her first trip to the Mexican island.
Taking a deep breath of warm humid air and smiling at the soldiers who never smiled back, she towed her bag behind her and went inside. She'd sent her supplies ahead, so she made it through immigration, baggage and customs fairly quickly. In the small lobby at the front of the building, she stood away from the flow of eager tourists to scan the area.
There was no sign of Trent or Susanna and not even a vaguely familiar face in the room. A number of men waited, holding signs with the names of the parties they were picking up, but none of them was looking for her.
After ten minutes, she made herself comfortable against the wall. After twenty minutes, she pulled out her cell phone, grateful that she'd bothered with the international calling plan for this trip, and dialed Trent's number. It went straight to voice mail. So did Susanna's.
After thirty minutes, she found a taxi driver, showed him the address of La Casa and climbed into the backseat. She didn't mind being forgotten at the airport in a country where she barely spoke the language and having to make her own way to La Casa. Really, she wasn't that petty. It was just that on her previous trips, Trent had met her himself. She'd never gone anywhere alone. It had been easier to feel independent with him or Susanna there beside her.
The cabdriver wasn't chatty, but that was okay. The Louisiana divers who'd surrounded her on the airplane had been chatty enough to give her a new appreciation for silence. He swerved through crowded streets, narrowly missing cars and scooters alike, until traffic thinned as they reached the more isolated neighborhood of La Casa.
A tall cinder-block wall surrounded the few acres, with a rusted iron gate standing open next to the drive. The sign identifying the place was so discreet as to go unnoticed: La Casa para Nuestras Hijas. The House for Our Daughters.
Her fourth time here, and Cate was still bemused by the thought of Trent Calloway, her lazy, spoiled, self-centered ex-husband, committing his time, money and self to a shelter for runaway, orphaned or mistreated girls. Granted, he did it out of lovefor Susanna, or so he saidbut still
The driver pulled to a stop in front of the house, jumped out and retrieved her bag from the trunk. She traded cash for it, thanking him, then turned to look around. Several buildings hunkered within the walls. The house stood to the left of the drive, once grand with two stories, elaborate ironwork, red-tile roof and deeply shaded porch. In the middle at the rear was a garage that housed school desks, chalkboards and supplies instead of vehicles, and to the right of the drive, also set farther back than the house, was the dormitory, a low squat building whose only ornamentation came from the bright paint on its cinder-block walls: turquoise, sunny yellow, apple red, lime green.
The quiet raised goose bumps on Cate's arms. Usually there was laughter, music, voices. If the girls weren't in class, they were studying under the trees or playing in the grass. There was always a volunteer or two with them, helping with their lessons or organizing games, keeping their spirits up or making them laugh.
"Hello?" she called out. "flola?"
Dragging her bag with her, she climbed the two steps to the porch, where the boxes she'd shipped earlier were stacked against the wall. They were filled with medical supplies, from basics like bandages and antiseptics to IV solution and antibiotics. What she didn't use in her two weeks here would be stored or shared with La Casa's other shelters on the mainland.
The front door stood open. She pulled on the screen door, her suitcase bumping over the threshold, then let it close behind her with a thump. "Trent? Susanna? Are you here?"
A sound came from upstairs, like the echo of her suitcase wheels on hardwood floor. A moment later, a woman appeared, staring over the railing as she dragged her own bag along.
Relief rushed through Cate. "GayAnne. I'm glad to see you. Where is everybody?"
GayAnne's bag thudded its way behind her down the stairs. "Gone. Everyone's gone."
"Jill and Kyla went home last week to visit their families, and I woke up this morning to find Marta packing up the kids to take to some relative's house. I don't know what's going on, but I'm leaving, too. I'm staying with my boyfriend until everyone comes back."
Marta was a local woman, Cate knew from past visits, the one in charge when Susanna and Trent were busy. She was as dedicated to the girls as Susanna; they were safe with her. "Where is Trent?"
GayAnne shook her head. "Gone. Disappeared. Him and Susanna both." She was about as far from the stereotypical California girl as she could be: petite, red-haired, skin as pale as if it had never seen the sun. The bag she dragged was more than big enough to carry her, and the look in her wide blue eyes suggested she might be more comfortable hiding inside. "If I knew anything, I'd tell you, but I don't. If you see Susanna" the redhead swallowed visibly "tell her I'm sorry to run out like this, but I'm not staying here alone." She finished with a shrug, avoiding Cate's hand as she passed.
A horn beeped outside, punctuated by the slamming of the screen door behind GayAnne. "Can't," she called over her shoulder. "No time."
Leaving her own bag where it was, Cate walked to the door. A young man was swinging off a scooter out front. He tossed a second helmet to GayAnne, then heaved her bag onto the back of the scooter, securing it while she strapped on the helmet. A moment later, they were roaring out the gate, and the silence returned.
Cate swallowed hard, and her stomach knotted. Where was Trent? Susanna? The other volunteers? Where were the girls La Casa was built to serve? What in hell was going on here?
Slowly she turned away from the door again. Compared to La Casa's usual activity, everything seemed unnaturally still. The house not only appeared abandoned, it felt it. It felt lost. The sheen of the ancient wood floors seemed duller than usual. The paint on the thick plastered walls looked more faded. The very air smelled empty. Unused.
It unsettled her deep inside.
Her stomach still tight, she walked to the door of the room that served as La Casa's office, making as little noise as possibleas if there were anyone around to hear it. Trent might have just taken off, even though he had obligations here, even though he'd known for six months she would be arriving today. He'd always been lazy and spoiled and selfish. He'd run out on her when things got tough more times than she could count, including that last time. The time she'd filed for divorce.
But Susanna Hunter, God love her, didn't have a lazy, spoiled or selfish bone in her body. She'd been volunteering at soup kitchens when she was a kid, tutoring at-risk children when she was still in school, mentoring, fundraising, serving. This place and the girls it cared for meant the world to her. She would never just leave them.
Maybe GayAnne was wrong. Maybe she had a flair for the dramatic that Cate had missed seeing on her last visit. Maybe.
Susanna had run the shelter from this office, while the rest of the place housed the staff. Usually that included Trent and three or four volunteers from the States. GayAnne had been there the longest, since Cate's first visit. The others came from the college Susanna had attended or one of the churches back home that helped fund the mission, and they stayed anywhere from a week to six months. In addition, a couple of local women worked there, too.
Like the rest of the house, the office had an abandoned look: a half-eaten cookie on a saucer, a cup of coffee long gone cold. As if Susanna had merely taken a break and would be back any moment now. Her desk was covered with papers, but Cate had never seen it otherwise. The bulletin board hanging above it didn't have a scrap of empty space available, and the chairs were piled with stacks of things to be filedagain, normal. Susanna was a hands-on person; she tolerated paperwork because it was an evil necessity.
A second, smaller desk on the other side was almost compulsively neatnot because Trent was, by nature, a neat person but because he opted for the easiest way out and, in this case, that was filing as he went along. The corkboard next to his desk held a calendar, with her arrival and departure dates circled in red, and a half-dozen photographs thumbtacked on randomly. They hadn't changed since her last visit: three of Susanna, two of his parents and brothers and one of himself with Justin Seavers, his best friend from college. Two damn good-looking men, and together they weren't worth a damn.
She eased the picture from under its tack, as was her habit, and studied it. The first time, Trent had cocked one brow and she'd shrugged. Just wondering where he hides his horns and pitchfork. The second time, alone in the office, she'd wondered if anyone had ever taken as quick a dislike to her as Justin had. She wasn't accustomed to scorn at first sight. Usually, she had to do something significant to piss someone off that badly.
The photo had been taken within the last few years, on a boat somewhere off the coast of Cozumel. Both Trent and Justin wore dive skins pulled down to their waists. Though they were roughly the same size, they looked as different as night and day. Trent was darkhair, eyes, skin; a gift from his Italian motherand Justin was lightblond hair, cafe au lait skin and coffee-dark eyes. Though one came from Georgia, the other from Alabama, their lives had been pretty much the same from birth: privileged. The Seaverses had even more money than the Calloways; Justin's sense of entitlement had been even greater than Trent's.
Justin's dislike for Cate had been even stronger than that.
Her cheeks heated, and the knot in her gut eased enough to summon her usual derision for Justin. He'd hated that she wasn't just another of Trent's passing diversions. He hadn't wanted to lose his partying buddywhich he hadn'tand he'd thought she didn't deserve Trent. He'd told her so at the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding.
Cate hadn't seen him since the following day, and she hoped she never would again.
Still clutching the photo, she turned and looked around the office once more. Maybe she should call the police, or Trent's parents. Maybe she should get out of the house and get the authorities in there before any evidence that might exist was destroyed.
Tell the police what? her little voice scoffed. That her irresponsible ex-husband had forgotten she was supposed to arrive today? That his very responsible girlfriend had actually left the house rather than wait for Cate to make her way there? As for evidence, didn't that imply a crime? Was there anything in this room to suggest something had happened?
Her eyes couldn't see it, but her gut felt something.
Gradually she became aware of a textural difference beneath her fingertips. Turning the photo over, she found a small Post-it note affixed to the picture, the precise writing in Trent's hand.
C: If anything happens, call him. He 'll know what to do.
Call Justin Seavers? Yeah, right. The only times she'd ever called him, she'd been looking for her fiance/husband when he hadn't returned from a night out with the boys. He'd always been at Justin's place, too hung over to talk to her, Justin had said in that superior tone. He'd told her to go on about her business, that Trent would come home when he was ready. Smug bastard.
And Trent wanted her to turn to him now? What could one lazy, irresponsible trust-fund baby do to help another?
Then she read the note again. If anything happens Finding the shelter empty and silent certainly qualified as anything.
He'll know what to do. Maybe Trent had confided in him. Maybe Justin could at least tell her something to report to the police. Maybe he knew where Trent and Susanna were and why everyone else had left.
Gritting her teeth, she stuck the photo back on the bulletin board, opened the lower-left drawer on Trent's desk and pulled out a leather-bound address book. Trent relied on his smartphone for a lot, but he also liked pa-per-and-ink records. She found the entry she needed, then punched the numbers into her cell with tiny, vicious pokes.
The phone rang once in her ear, followed by a sound from outside the office. Moving the cell away, she took a hesitant step toward the door and listened hard. Music came faintly from somewhere inside the house, and it was moving closer.
Her palms went damp, and her heart stuttered to a stop before breaking into a gallop.
Oh, God, someone else was inside the house!