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Happy is the bride that the sun shines on. If that was the case, then Camille Wells was going to be one unhappy bride, Ryan Burton thought as he stood among a huge crowd of people gathered on the rocky bluffs of Raven's Cliff, Maine.
The dismal gray sky seemed to plunge right down to the frothing water of the coastline below. A stiff breeze blew everyone's hair askew and the female guests held on to their skirts.
Beneath the hum of conversation among the attendees was the ever-present thunder of the waves crashing against the rocky shoreline. Despite the fact that it was early May the air held an oppressive closeness broken only by wind gusts, which had been strong enough to decimate the floral arrangements long ago.
Ryan had arrived in the small fishing village that morning with a specific job to accomplish, and that job had nothing to do with attending some fancy wedding ceremony. But when he'd discovered it was the mayor's daughter getting married, and everyone who was anyone would be there, he'd wrangled an invite from the innkeeper when he'd checked in.
Maybe somebody here knew something about her disappearance. Ryan tried to ignore the tension that knotted in his chest as he thought of the woman he'd come here to find.
Britta Jakobsen was supposed to have begun work as a housekeeper at the inn four days ago. According to the inn-keeper, Hazel Baker, Britta had checked in and gone to her room and hadn't been seen since.
Later today he was to speak with Michael Kelly, the FBI agent in charge of relocating Britta here. To the FBI, Britta Jakobsen was a witness who had fingered a number of bad guys who'd been in a shoot-out that had taken place in Boston six monthsbefore.
The shoot-out had not only involved local thugs but also police and FBI agents. It had resulted in the death of one of their own, and the FBI had leaned hard on Britta for her cooperation.
There had already been one attempt on her life, resulting in her being placed in the Witness Protection Program and relocated to this small Maine fishing village.
And now she was missing.
"Ugly day for a wedding." The deep voice brought Ryan out of his thoughts.
He looked at the barrel-chested bald man standing next to him and nodded. "I've definitely seen better." As if to punctuate his sentence, a fierce wind gust nearly blew him back a step, and the scent of brine became stronger.
"Don't believe I've seen you around these parts before." The man's hazel eyes held both a wealth of intelligence and more than a touch of curiosity. "Friend of the bride or the groom?"
"Neither," Ryan admitted. "I checked into the inn this morning and Hazel invited me to come out for the wedding. She mentioned these bluffs are the best place to get a look at that." He pointed to the old lighthouse that rose up in the distance. "Hazel told me it's the stuff of local legends."
The well-built man offered a small smile. "Hazel is our resident kook. Don't let her fill your head with nonsense. Is that a touch of Texas I hear in your voice?"
Ryan eyed him in surprise. "It is. Born and raised there."
The man held out a hand. "I'm Patrick Swanson, Chief of Police."
Ryan wasn't surprised. The man definitely had the aura of power and authority. He took the proffered hand, and the two men shook. "Ryan Burton, nice to meet you."
"So, what brings you to Raven's Cliff, Ryan Burton?"
Ryan couldn't very well tell him he was in town undercover to find an important material witness who had gone missing. The last thing they wanted was any kind of publicity. "I've heard the fishing is good in these parts."
He wasn't sure yet how to handle things with the authorities here in Raven's Cliff. He'd had to tell Hazel that he'd come to look for Britta because Britta had gone missing from the inn. He was banking on the hope that Hazel wouldn't want anyone to know that a woman had disappeared from the inn under strange circumstances. It wasn't good for publicity.
"The locals are pulling in record breakers lately. I've never seen fish so big," Patrick replied.
Ryan nodded absently and gazed around at the group, wondering who among the guests might know something about the woman he sought. Again a fist knotted in the pit of his stomach. To the FBI Britta was a material witness, but to him, she had once been far more.
He focused back on Patrick, who was pointing out the town notables to him. There was Mayor Perry Wells and his wife, Beatrice, and standing nearby was Rick Simpson, the mayoral aide.
The prospective groom, Grant Bridges, was also the assistant district attorney and stood impatiently at the altar that had been set up precariously close to the edge of the bluff.
"I'm going to see if I can find out what's holding up the ceremony," Patrick said. With a nod he left Ryan standing alone.
This was probably a waste of time, Ryan thought. He'd tried to question several people immediately upon arriving in town, but the one thing he'd discovered fairly quickly was that despite the fact that part of the town's revenue came from tourism, the people of Raven's Cliff didn't appear to take too kindly to strangers.
What he hoped was that following the wedding there would be a surplus of champagne served and that would loosen lips. Somebody had to have seen Britta. A pretty blond woman like her drew attention. Somebody had to have seen or heard something that would give him a clue as to what had happened to her.
His gaze fell on the mayor, who worked the crowd with ease. Tall, with salt-and-pepper hair, the man had the polish and style of power. As Ryan watched, Mayor Wells shook a man's hand and Ryan saw a wad of money being exchanged.
He frowned. He wouldn't have found it odd if it had been the mayor passing some bills to somebody involved in the wedding, but it had been the mayor receiving the bills, not handing them out. The minute the money hit the mayor's hand, it disappeared into his pocket.
At that moment Hazel stepped up beside him. "Isn't this exciting?" she asked. Her bright yellow and orange dress threatened to balloon up, but she held it down with slightly chubby hands. "Have you found anyone who has seen Valerie?" she asked.
Britta had come to Raven's Cliff four days ago under the name of Valerie King. "Not yet, but I'm still hopeful."
"A woman as pretty as her might have caught the eye of one of our local fishermen. Maybe he reeled her right into a love nest," Hazel exclaimed, her eyes softening with a streak of obvious romanticism.
The idea of Britta in love with anyone sent a stab of pain through him. But he knew he had no right to her, and he certainly preferred she be holed up in a love nest than all the other grim possibilities that marched through his head.
"Have you talked to Captain Swanson? He's the chief of police and maybe he could help." Her plump features turned into a frown. "Maybe I should have contacted him when she didn't show up for work the morning after she checked in."
"I'm sure that's not necessary. If I know Valerie, it's just as you said, she's probably found some guy and thinks she's in love," he replied. The last thing he wanted was the local authorities involved in the case.
"She do that a lot?"
"Often enough," Ryan replied. Of course, it was a lie. Britta wasn't the type to just take off with a man or for any other reason, which was why a feeling of disquiet swept through him.
He didn't understand why Agent Kelly had chosen this particular place to relocate Britta. Strangers stuck out in small towns, even places that catered to tourists. A beautiful woman moving to town was noted.
"Oh, they're finally getting started," Hazel exclaimed as music began to swell in the air and a hush of expectancy fell over the crowd. "You know Grant sold his house and is staying at the inn right now. The mayor is giving his daughter and Grant a huge house as a wedding gift."
Hazel said no more as the mayor appeared with his daughter and began the traditional walk toward the altar. "Doesn't she look beautiful?"
Ryan murmured in agreement. The bride did look pretty in her silk and pearl gown. Burnished gold corkscrew curls fell to her shoulders and a soft smile curved the corners of her lips as she looked at Grant, waiting at the altar.
Yes, she was pretty, but Ryan's head was filled with the vision of a tall, long-legged blonde with ice-blue eyes. Where are you, Britta? She hadn't just disappeared into thin air.
It was a good thing the wedding was getting underway, for the weather seemed to be contemplating a turn for the worse. The skies had darkened into an ominous color of gray, and the thundering of the waves against the rocky bluffs grew louder.
It was obvious a storm was approaching. They'd have to hurry to get the vows in before nature released all its fury. The beautiful bride and her father approached the altar, and Mayor Wells did the traditional handing over of the bride to her groom.
Grant Bridges reached for Camille's hand, but at that moment a gale-force wind tore across the top of the bluff. It moved Ryan forward a step, and the bride reached up to grab her veil.
Everything appeared to happen in slow motion. As Camille reached a slender hand up to hold on to her veil she took a step backward and stumbled. Her mouth opened in surprise as her feet found no purchase.
Grant lunged out for her and desperately grabbed at the sleeve of her dress. For an instant Ryan thought he had her, but then the sleeve tore in Grant's hand, and with a small cry she tumbled off the bluff and disappeared from sight.
Stunned silence lasted only a minute, and then the crowd erupted with screams and shouts. "It's the curse," Hazel wailed. "Captain Raven's curse has struck again."
Ryan ignored her and raced to the altar, along with the mayor, Captain Swanson and half a dozen other men. Ryan lay on his stomach and eased up to the edge of the bluffs, looking over to the treacherous rocks below.
He'd expected to see the broken body of Camille. But he saw nothing. Carefully he slid backward from the treacherous edge and stood with feet braced wide apart for balance, unwilling to become another victim to the wind.
Lightning slashed the black sky, and thunder boomed overhead. Bedlam reigned. Grant had collapsed and was weeping like a baby, women screamed and held on to their husbands.
"Do something," Mayor Wells said, grabbing Patrick Swanson by the arm. "We have to find her." Perry Wells's eyes were as turbulent as the sea below.
Patrick shrugged off the mayor's desperate grasp as he opened a cell phone and spoke to somebody about search and rescue.
Ryan stared up at the angry skies, still unable to believe the tragedy that had just occurred. A freak accident. Hell, it didn't get any freakier. Of course, if he listened to Hazel, it hadn't been an accident at all; rather, Camille Wells had been the tragic victim of a curse.
Exactly what curse? Ryan was grounded in reality too much to believe in such nonsense. Still, as he thought of Camille tumbling over the bluff, probably to her death, and the fact that Britta appeared to have disappeared into thin air, he couldn't control the chill that walked up his spine, raised the hair on his arms and iced the blood in his veins.
A SEARCH-AND-RESCUE TEAM worked for hours. Ryan volunteered to be a part of the effort to find Camille. The storm moved on without rain, leaving behind a gray pall that matched the moods of the men.
Her veil. That's all that had been found so far. Fishermen in boats dotted the water looking for her body, but so far she hadn't been spotted either in the water or along the rocks and crevices of the bluff itself.
Mayor Wells was like a man possessed. He'd taken his distraught wife home, then had returned to help search for his daughter. Grant Bridges, the groom without a bride, had been sedated and taken to the local clinic.
Twilight was approaching, and Ryan knew the search would soon be called off for the night. He stood on the shore staring up at the bluff where Camille had gone over the edge. It was as if the earth had opened and swallowed her whole.
He frowned. Britta wouldn't have just disappeared on her own. She knew the importance of the FBI knowing where she was. They had gone to a lot of trouble to set her up here with a new identity and a new job. She just wasn't the type to blow off all their hard work.
Had one of the men who had made an attempt on her life in Boston found her? Even though he'd walked away from her two months ago with the realization that he'd never see her again, he'd taken comfort in the fact that eventually she'd find some man to love, would build the family she wanted and live a wonderful life.
His frown deepened as his gaze swept the area, lingering on the abandoned Beacon Manor lighthouse that still showed the blackened scars of the fire that had consumed the top of the forty-foot conical building some time ago.
He froze as something caught his eye, a flash of white against the blackened beams, a ghostly wraith that was there only a moment, then gone.
If he were a superstitious man, he would have guessed that the apparition was the dead wife of Sea Captain Earl Raven seeking her husband. But Ryan was firmly grounded in reality. He didn't believe in curses or ghosts.
He rubbed a hand over tired eyes and wondered if it had been nothing more than his imagination. He supposed it was possible it might be the missing bride, although he couldn't imagine how she would have survived her fall off the bluff and be able to climb the stairs to the top of the lighthouse.
Knowing he wouldn't be satisfied until he checked it out, he left the bluffs and headed back to his car to drive the short distance to the lighthouse.
As he passed the area that had been set up as a command post for the search-and-rescue team, he caught a glimpse of the police chief. Patrick Swanson had impressed him. Ryan would guess the man to be in his sixties, and although he had the body of a man half his age, he also had the command and cool-headedness that came with wisdom.
The wind had picked up again, buffeting his car as he approached the rocky shore where the lighthouse rose up like a sand castle.
A low-lying blanket of fog had moved in, nearly obscuring the base of the structure. Maybe that's what he'd seen. A wisp of fog. No ghost, no missing bride, just a freak of nature that had momentarily looked like a person.
He'd have to hurry. Before long total darkness would descend and he'd brought no flashlight with him. Although he sensed no danger, he drew his gun from his shoulder holster.
From the moment he'd arrived in Raven's Cliff he'd felt an underlying aura of something unsettling. He'd only experienced it once before in his life in a small Louisiana bayou.
At that time they'd been chasing a schizophrenic man who had kidnapped a six-year-old girl. It had taken only minutes of being in Black Bay to realize that the townspeople appeared to have more secrets than the man they were hunting.
There had been a happy ending to that situation, and he hoped his hunt for Britta would result in the same kind of ending. With his gun held steady before him, he started up the wrought iron stairs that wound clockwise inside the stone tower.
"Haunted, it is," Hazel had said that morning. "If it's not the ghost of Captain Earl Raven's wife that haunts the place then it surely is the ghost of Nicholas Sterling who set the curse into motion."
"Ghost, my ass," Ryan muttered to himself. He counted twenty steps before he reached a small landing. He stared upward, but saw nothing, although he heard the scurry of what he assumed were mice. He heard nothing else to cause him alarm, but unexpected tension pressed hard against his chest.
Fog drifted in the broken windows, tendrils of gray smoke that added to the eerie atmosphere of the abandoned building. He'd just reached the second landing when he heard the echo of something above him. A footfall?