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Molly Hamilton's sedan rose and then sank back to the ground as if she'd gone over a speed bump. A really large speed bump.
As she threw on the brakes, every muscle in her body tensed. She gripped the steering wheel, frozen with indecision. The lonely, wooded road slithered in front of her, cloaked by an ominous darkness. The forest had hollow spaces between the trees that just seemed to beckon something dangerous to hide there. Bears. Wildcats. Serial killers.
Molly shook her head. She was being ridiculous. She was an established, professional woman who should have long since outgrown her fear of the woods and nighttime. But some things never died. Memories from her childhood filled her, but she pushed them away. Not now.
Shakes overcame her anyway.
She looked in the rearview mirror and saw the red of her brake lights reflecting off the asphalt. Darkness swallowed everything else. Fear threatened to swallow her.
Whatever she'd hit still lay underneath her car. Her sedan had risen and fallen once, which meant that the front tires had gone over something, but not the back.
Probably just a deer, she rationalized. Perhaps someone else had hit the animal and left the poor creature in the road. The country lane was so narrow and winding, and outside was so dark. She'd rounded the corner and, just as she'd done so, seen a flash of something on the street. Before she could brake, she felt the thump against her wheels. The thump of a deer against her wheels.
Her throat went dry. She was going to have to get out of the car and check. Right?
Oh Lord, help me, please. I don't want to open this car door.
Why had she even agreed to come to the backwoods of Virginia's Northern Neck? What exactly had she been thinking when she begged for this temporary summer job in the middle of nowhere at Camp Hope Springs?
Closure, she remembered. She'd wanted closure, to go back to one of the happiest places of her youth. She had so many fond memories of her last summer of innocence, of being carefree and hopeful. Then she'd grown up and life had happened. Responsibilities had surrounded her and not let her go. She'd left her childhood behind right along with campfires and vesper services.
Her thoughts and reminiscing of the past only delayed the inevitable. She needed a plan, and she needed to get the yet-to-be-decided-on action over with. She rested her head against the steering wheel, flabbergasted by her own indecision. She couldn't simply sit here in the middle of the road all night.
The silver of her cell phone on the seat beside her caught her eye. She grabbed the device and flipped it open. What were the chances that she'd find reception out here? She blinked when she saw one bar left on her signal.
The cops. She could call the cops.
She lowered the phone to her lap. And tell the police what? That she may have just hit a deer? They'd think she was crazy and rightfully so. She rubbed her forehead in irritation, staring at her headlights as they illuminated the deserted road before her. Camp Hope Springs was only a mile or two away at the most.
That settled it. She had to get out of the car and find out what had just happened. Just sitting here and thinking about the possibilities over and over would drive her crazy.
She grabbed the door handle and pulled until the latch clicked open. After taking another deep breath, she pushed the door out wide.
The smell of damp earth, of thick, wet leaves and tree branches ripe with moss and fungi filled the car. Crickets sang their songs. Leaves tippity-tapped together in the light breeze. Heavy summer air floated inside, covering Molly with its sticky, invisible fingers.
She fumbled through the glove compartment for a minute before finding a small flashlight. She twisted the top of it and a small ray of light sliced the air. It was better than nothing, she supposed.
She dropped one foot onto the ground and then the other. The woods still seemed to be staring at her, unknown dangers just waiting to pounce when she was least expecting it. She shivered despite the summer heat.
She squatted and shined her light under the car. Something off-white lay center beneath her vehicle.
She moved her flashlight along the length of the creature.
Was that something blue? Maybe just the asphalt reflecting onto the deer's fur, she wanted to believe. And that splotch of white? Deer had white splotches, right?
She moved her flashlight up farther. Near her front bumper, her heart seemed to stop.
Eyes stared back at her. Not deer eyes. Human eyes.
She'd hit someone. As a trained nurse she didn't have to touch the man to know that he was dead.
"I didn't see anything!" Molly insisted to the sheriff again. "I simply turned at the bend in the road and heard a thump. It was darkfrighteningly so." It was still frighteningly dark, she thought, wrapping her arms around herself. A chill seemed to emanate from the woods now and each whisper from the crickets seemed ominous, like those creatures knew something that she didn't.
They knew she shouldn't have driven through the woods at night.
The sheriffa pudgy man with a soft jawline and full head of incredibly thick, dark hairstared at her and then back at her car. Somewhere in the background, an owl hooted. The sound seemed almost mocking to Molly.
"The medical examiner is on her way. Maybe we'll have more answers then," Sheriff Spruill finally said. "Where did you say you were headed again?"
"Camp Hope Springs. I'll be working as a nurse there this summer."
"I'll need to talk to someone there to verify this."
"No problem. Gene Alan hired me. I'm sure he'll be happy to verify my reason for being out here at this hour."
"Gene Alan isn't at the camp anymore."
Molly blinked several times. "What do you mean? He hired me. Said I start tomorrow. When the campers arrive."
"No, he left about a week ago. Heard they got a new guy."
Great. Did she even have a job now? Where would she go if not to Camp Hope Springs? She'd given up the lease on her apartment. She had no job. No one else would hire her right now, not with the allegations that had been made against hereven if they'd been proven unfounded.
Headlights eased down the road, reminding Molly of two glowing eyes slithering toward them. The medical examiner? Molly wondered.
A pickup truck came to a stop in front of them. The vehicle looked much too old and beat-up to belong to the medical examiner. At least that's what Molly imagined. She watched as a tall man stepped out, his feet practically bouncing against the asphalt as he emerged. She blinked again as the man came into focus. She soaked in his messy, light-brown hair, the dimple on his chin, his worn, dusty jeans and the plaid shirt that was just fitted enough to show flat abs and broad shoulders.
"Nick White?" Molly nearly gasped as she said the word.
The man stepped toward her and squinted. "Molly Hamilton?"
"What are you doing here?" Molly asked, just as he blurted, "Why are you here?"
Molly stepped back, shock threatening to freeze her limbs and vocal cords. "You first."
"I work out here now. At Camp Hope Springs." He stared at her, unblinking, as if that same shock had overcome him. "Your turn."
The words seemed to stick in her throat. "I'm reporting for my first day of work."
"At Camp Hope Springs." As soon as she said the words, she wanted to hide, to run. Surely Nick could see the vulnerability in her eyes at the mere mention of the camp. Certainly he knew how special the place was to her. He'd been part of the reason it was so special all those years ago.
Coming back here had been desperate and Nick would see right through her. Maybe she should turn and run and go back Go back where? She had nowhere to go.
He rubbed his chin, his eyes looking perplexed. "Why in the world would you think that you needed to report to work at Camp Hope Springs?"
Why did he make it sound so outrageous? Maybe because he thought she wasn't religious enough to work at a Christian summer camp? "Because because they hired me to be their nurse for the summer."
His eyes narrowed. "I think I would know about that."
"Because I'm the camp director."
"Camp director? That's impossible. I would never have accepted the job if I'd thought you were the camp director!" Her hand flew over her mouth. Had she really just said those words aloud? She'd in no way intended to do that, but there was so snatching them back now.
"I guess I deserved that one."
The heat rose in Molly's cheeks. She hadn't intended on ever letting him know just how much he'd hurt her when he'd broken her heart all those years ago. But her old pain had risen to the surface. She'd just ended one relationship with a man who'd left her feeling belittled and weak. Being around someone else who'd broken her heart just firmed up her resolve for independence. She had to be strong, prove to herself that she was nothing like her mother when it came to men.
But a part of her wanted to turn around and run. But she wouldn't. She couldn't.
The two of them stared at each other.
The sheriff cleared his throat and they both turned to look at him. He shifted, as if uncomfortable. "Could we get back to the matters at hand now?"
Nick flicked his eyes away from Molly to look at the sheriff's car and then to Molly's sedan. His hands went to his hips just as his eyebrows drew together. "What matters would that be? What's going on here?"
The sheriff raised his chin and looked at Molly. "This young lady appears to have hit someone while driving out here."
Nick's eyebrows flicked up before his concerned gaze settled on Molly. "Hit someone?"
"I didn't hit someone. I mean, I did hit them, but I didn't hit them. They were in the road when I rounded the bend." She sighed, hating herself for getting flustered so easily. Nick had that affect on her. He always had. Why did he have to be here? Here she was, supposedly retreating from all of her problems, when a big problem showed up unexpectedly perhaps the biggest one, bigger even than the investigation against her, bigger than the loss of her income and home, bigger than everything.
Nick had been her first love, the man who'd broken her heart and walked away from her ten years ago. And that was a problem.
Nick's eyes seemed to soften. "Is he dead?"
Sheriff Spruill nodded. "Affirmative. The medical examiner is on her way."
Molly pinched the bridge of her nose. How had all of this happened? Just when she thought her life couldn't go downhill any more than it already had, it succeeded at sinking even lower.
What was that old saying? That the Lord had to make you hit rock bottom sometimes to get you to the place where there was nowhere else to look except up.
I'm paying attention, Lord.
"Any idea who he is?" Nick asked.
"No idea. Don't recognize him. Could be because he's under the car."
"He's still under the car?" Nick's voice rose in pitch.
"I didn't want to run over him more than I already did!" Molly felt her face heating. What was wrong with her? "Just in case you know."
A respectable-looking white sedan pulled up behind Nick's truck. A middle-aged woman who walked with a slight limp approached them and introduced herself as the medical examiner.
After all the formalities were over, the medical examiner squatted down beside the car. "We're going to need a tow truck," she announced. "A tow truck with a very careful driver who knows how to get this car off the body without damaging it more."
The sheriff leaned down so he could peer under the car with her. "What can you tell from the body?"
"Based on the rigor mortis, I don't believe this woman killed the man. I think he's been dead for a couple of hours at least. I won't know anything for sure until I examine the body, however."
Relief flooded through Molly. Most likely, she hadn't killed the man. Most likely. Still, she wouldn't breathe easy until she knew for sure.
"Does that mean that Molly can leave?" Nick stepped up behind her. Molly felt his presence and her breathing quickened. She quickly took a step to the side.
The sheriff looked in the distance, as if in thought, before setting a steely gaze on Molly. "You'll be at the camp in case we have any questions for you?"
"Yes, sir." She glanced at Nick, quickly wondering if she had any other options. "I'll be at the camp if I am, indeed, hired, that is."
"I'll make sure she doesn't go anywhere." Nick glanced at her again. His eyes weren't especially friendly, but they weren't uncompassionate, either. What were they? Still wide with surprise? A touch anxious?
The sheriff nodded slowly. "You'll need to stay in this area while the investigation is ongoing. Do you understand?"
Molly nodded. "Yes, sir."
"We'll tow your car in to get any evidence from it. We'll let you know when it's released. We'll also need for you to be available in case we have any more questions."
Nick nodded toward his truck. "Come on, I'll give you a ride."
Molly sighed. She was leaving one crime scene but entering another situation that seemed just as deadly for her heart, at least.