Something was wrong.
Daniel tuned out his mother's ever-helpful advice. "With the garage full of moving boxes you'll have to park in the driveway, dear."
Since Daniel had put at least thirty of those boxes in the garage himself, he was already aware of that. But it wasn't what was wrong.
He studied the front of his mother's soon-to-be former house. The Navigator's headlights cut across the snow-covered lawn, creating a storybook gleam on the thin layer of ice. He missed the small white lights--calculated precisely to the most tasteful ratio of bulbs per bough--sparkling in the bushes, but they were already packed. The sole exterior concession to the Christmas season was a fresh balsam wreath with a small red ribbon on the door.
The open door. Porch light off.
Alarm jarred him from satiated and nostalgic to hyper-alert. "Wait a second, Mother. Stay in the car."
"Danny, it's freezing out here. If it's some kind of a Christmas surprise--" She opened the passenger door.
"Someone's been in the house. The door's open."
His mother climbed out, ignoring the bad combination of high heels and winter-slick driveway. "Honestly, honey, your job makes you so suspicious. Maybe your sister and Peter came home after all. We have an alarm system."
"I know we do. I set it when we left." He'd also left the porch light on and the one in the hall. The house was completely dark. "Get back in the car and call the police. Use my phone." He tossed it onto the seat.
"Where are you going?"
"To look around."
"Why don't you wait for the police?"
"I am the police, Mother."
"You work for the government."
"As a policeman." He'd been on a deskfor six years, analyzing data for Homeland Security, but he was still a cop. He'd transferred from the FBI as soon as the department was created.
"Why don't you wait for your brother?"
Daniel summoned as much patience as he could muster. "Rob is an orthodontist. Unless the criminals need their braces tightened, I think I'm better able to handle it." He wanted to show his mother the hip holster under his jacket, but she would only complain about why he'd worn it to the restaurant.
With an arch to her brows that said she was only humoring him, his mother climbed back into the car. The lights from Rob's minivan cut across his face. Daniel held up his hand and signaled his brother to roll down his window. He spoke as low as he could, trying to keep the information from his nieces. Though he probably could have bellowed and their eyes wouldn't have strayed from the DVD screens dangling in front of their faces.
As his sister-in-law reached for her purse, he said, "Mother's calling." Rob and Shannon both looked at him as if he'd said something completely ridiculous. He nodded as Shannon pulled out her phone.
Daniel turned back toward the house.
"I'll come with you." Rob reached for the door handle.
"No. You keep Mother from getting out of the car. And keep the cops from shooting me." He pulled the Glock from its holster.
"Why don't you just wait for the police?"
And people wondered why he hated coming home to the Valley. "I'm trained. I'm just going to look."
If they'd cut the power, that would have taken care of the alarm. But the alarm company should have checked.
The reason why Sure Safe Alarm didn't look into the service interruption made Daniel's foot slide as he hit the walk. Ice. Last night's storm had caused spotty power outages--enough for the alarm company to not bother checking.
He waited outside the door, listening and letting his eyes adjust. His senses and his reason told him the house was empty. Even if a burglar had been surprised in the act of looting Christmas gifts, he'd have disappeared while Daniel tried to halt the inexorable press of Mrs. Julia Gardner-Holcomb.
He drew the pistol and went through the drill anyway, checking corners, high and low, back to the wall. By the time the police car pulled up in front of the driveway, he'd cleared the downstairs. He holstered the Glock and went back outside.
The cops looked at his badge, but still asked him to wait outside while they checked over the house. In the interest of law enforcement cooperation, Daniel stayed outside, but leaned into the Navigator to push the remote on the garage door opener. As the door rolled up, he kept a hand on the Glock.
Nothing. Dark and empty.
The cops were standing in the garage when he walked up. Daniel ignored the officers' disapproving looks and stared at the mess of overturned boxes illuminated by the crossing beams of the police Maglites. He winced as one of the officer's shoes ground a piece of his mother's beloved Spode china to a powder.
Rob and his mother came up to flank him.
A single, short gasp slipped from his mother as she took in the scattered pieces of her life, and then she regained her usual aplomb. "Well, this should save me some money on storage."
* * * *
Daniel sat with his mother while Rob and Shannon put the girls to bed. Once Ashley and Samantha heard Christmas wouldn't be affected, they were uninterested in anything but whining about how they'd get to sleep without a bedtime video. The power surged back on just before the female officer came into the den.
"The detective wants to talk to you."
His mother rose.
"Um, no, ma'am. Agent Gardner."
Daniel followed Officer Acevedo into the garage.
No preamble, no warning. Trey Eriksson was just there, leaning against the whitewashed wall, looking even better than he had fifteen years ago when he'd shipped off to basic training. Better than he had when for a polite, silent instant they'd shaken hands in the receiving line at Daniel's stepfather's wake.
The shoulders were broader, the hair darker and shorter than the long wheat-blond strands that used to flop in his eyes, but the face hadn't changed much, except for the neat beard around his lips and chin, the same square chin that had frustrated a teenaged Trey with its smoothness. When Trey stared straight at him, the challenge in those ethereally light eyes made Daniel's heart punch against his ribs, sent the pulse jumping in his temples, his throat, his dick.
"Agent Gardner?" Trey's voice held no clue to what he was thinking. Of course, he'd had time to prepare.
Trey knew exactly who the fuck he was. Knew who he'd be interviewing. Hell, he'd had time to pull Daniel's service record up in the squad car. Trey probably knew the last six guys Daniel'd fucked, down to their boxer-or-brief preference. Trey knew he'd be seeing Daniel when he had gotten a call to 312 Paxinosa Ave on December 23.
Daniel was the one with the breath knocked out of him.
Not that Trey had an obligation to keep in touch with the Gardners. Mother had told him Trey was with the police. Though when Daniel had first heard it, he'd wondered for a second if she meant Trey had been arrested. Daniel knew how close Trey's anger was to the surface, even if he hid it well enough to pass for civilized.
Mother's next news report about Trey came almost a decade later. "I saw Trey Eriksson at the Food Lion. He's a detective now. Remarkable what with his father." It wasn't that remarkable. Nothing could stop Trey when he made up his mind. Nothing.
Daniel had filled out, wasn't the skinny kid he'd been at seventeen, but Trey still made him feel like the geek he'd been. Trying to regain some control over the situation, Daniel folded his arms across his chest and didn't wait for questions.
"We left the house at seventeen thirty." The shift to military time was second nature. "The front door was locked. I set the alarm myself. We had dinner reservations at Dunham's. We got to the restaurant at seventeen fifty. We left at nineteen fifteen and drove directly back here. I saw the door open, told my mother to call the police. I didn't notice any other cars on the road." When Trey tipped his head, Daniel said, "I am familiar with procedure, Detective."
"So I heard. Homeland Security?"
"Want to see my badge?"
"It checks out. So when you entered the house--is that standard procedure for federal officers? Entering a potential crime scene alone?"
A turf war? Fifteen years later and they were in a fed-versus-local turf war?
"I was interested in protecting my family, Detective."
"Did you notice anything?"
"I didn't see anything. Or anyone."
"Is anything missing?"
"Not that we've been able to determine." Daniel nodded at the debris in the garage. "Of course, we've been sitting in the dark until a few minutes ago."
"None of the electronics touched?"
"No. And my nieces reported none of the Christmas presents were missing."
Trey's jaw moved. Maybe that twitch was all that was left of his heartbreaking smile.
Mother hadn't mentioned a wife. Daniel couldn't ask it, but he wanted to know. Do you have any kids? Did you finally stop faking it with cheerleaders or was that thing in my room an isolated incident or six? Not that I counted.
"Mrs. Holcomb, ma'am. The detective will call you when--" When Officer Acevedo's pleading voice broke through, Daniel felt the shift of Trey's attention like a physical loss. The tension between them snapped free like a pine bough under the weight of last night's ice.
"Trey, dear." Officer Acevedo was no match for the former Mrs. Mayor. "I'm glad to see you, even under these circumstances."
"Thank you, Julia." As if Trey ever came to the Gardners under anything but unpleasant circumstances. But that wasn't fair. It was just some crash-and-burn karma. On both sides.
"Why don't you and the officers come in and I'll make you all some coffee. I don't even want to look at this disaster until tomorrow."
The patrol officers looked over at Trey through frosty breaths.
"That would be great, Julia. Thank you."
Daniel waited, making sure Trey would have to pass by him to get into the house. He didn't know about Trey, but the familiar electric charge prickled across Daniel's skin. Trey paused, eyes dropping to Daniel's mouth, a glance so quick no one else could have seen it, and then he was following the patrol officers into the house.
Rob was in the kitchen now, and they all went through how glad everyone was to see each other again. Rob--who'd shared the house with Trey for only six weeks before departing for Cornell--got a hearty handshake and a first-name greeting, questions about his wife and kids.
Daniel got "Agent Gardner."
Once the greetings were out of the way, Rob confirmed everything Daniel had already said. Rob didn't notice anything. He couldn't say if anything was missing.
Shannon made her appearance, still in the dark green dress she had worn to dinner. Daniel's sister-in-law was a beautiful woman, and he waited to see how Trey reacted to blonde and stacked.
If Trey's eyes were dropping to the folds arranged to draw attention to Shannon's cleavage, Daniel couldn't tell.
"Trey lived with us for awhile, right before I left for school." Rob came to stand by his wife, but he wasn't displaying any jealous mannerisms.
"Oh, yes. I remember you mentioning it."
And no one mentioned why. Daniel wondered if Trey resented the tacit knowledge. Everyone knew, but no one talked. As if by that silence they could erase the Erikssons' existence, remain clear of the taint of violence, instability. Of course, Trey might have found the silence better than the constant whispered chorus of neighbors and coworkers from that interminable summer all those years ago, a chorus which persisted until Ron Eriksson was safely locked away. Daniel had heard them. At the grocery store, the mall, repeated endlessly on the news. But they seemed so happy.
Trey had talked to Daniel about what it had been like that day. Once. Under the rumble of almost constant thunder, like the noise would make the words less powerful. If Daniel hadn't already been in hopeless love with Trey before that moment--a schoolboy crush, Daniel reminded himself from the distance of fifteen years--but if he hadn't spent every Sunday in church praying Trey would love him back before that night, he would have after. But Daniel's crush had started a long time before. When the Erikssons first moved to Easton, Pennsylvania.
Daniel didn't know who Trey was then. He was just the boy with the light blond hair and grey eyes who had gotten between Daniel and those assholes Steve Drake and Jason Matthews when they'd jumped him again after middle school. Even though Trey had walked off with Steve and Jason, Daniel had run home to find out everything he could about the Oakland Raiders football team so he could have something to talk about with the boy who'd been wearing the silver and black jersey.
The boy in the Raiders jersey had become the man in jeans and the U.S. Army sweatshirt stretched across his broad chest. The boy who'd spent most of his time here hiding out in their finished basement was now exchanging small talk with the family in the kitchen while drinking coffee out of one of the Christmas mugs that had eluded Mother's packing.
The patrol officers left first with effusive thanks for the coffee. With the familiarity of an almost-son of the house, Trey put his mug in the sink.
"We'll follow up on this, Julia. I promise. If I were you, I'd have someone from the alarm company come over tomorrow to check things out. Don't let them give you a story about the holidays. This is what you're paying for. In the meantime, I'm sure Agent Danny can handle things."
Agent Danny? He briefed people at the White House, for God's sake. Fuck Trey's condescension and fuck himself for letting this house, these people turn him into that stupid confused teenager again.
Daniel wanted to yell and shove Trey like he had the night before Trey left. Demand Trey see him, Daniel, for a second before that sharp focus turned inward again, shutting Daniel out.
"I'll walk you out." Daniel's voice was steady and even.
An almost imperceptible shrug from broad shoulders before Trey led the way out of the kitchen, through the laundry room, out into the garage. Daniel followed immediately, but Trey wasn't leaving room for conversation, crossing the driveway so fast he might have been on skates--or simply smart enough to wear the heavy, thick-soled boots Daniel could see beneath his jeans.
Daniel skidded down the driveway in his dress shoes, certain Trey would just get into his black Charger and drive away, but Trey waited for him, leaning back against the driver's door, arms folded across his chest.
It didn't take a course in body language to read the warning signs.
"What?" was all Trey said.
What had Daniel expected? He hadn't. Hadn't ever thought he'd see Trey Eriksson again. Read about him in the paper when he killed someone, but not see him.
"You have some kind of problem with federal agents?" Daniel asked.
"No. I don't have a problem, Danny."
"Daniel." Like it made a difference. Like insisting on the name he'd worn since he left home could keep that frustrated, horny, lovesick teenager from erupting to the surface like a bad case of acne.
A curving driveway's length away from the garage lights, Trey's expressions were hard to read, but Daniel thought he blinked an acknowledgement. He wished he could see Trey's eyes.
It was the wrong thing to bring up, but Daniel had to say it. "I'm sorry about your dad."
Trey only turned and opened the car door. "We done here, Agent Gardner?"
No. Things were just as unfinished as they'd been fifteen years ago. And even though Daniel was good at expressing himself in six languages, always able to find an answer for the emergency question of the hour, and had a name-your-salary offer with one of the top private security firms in the country, standing here facing Trey, he couldn't think of one thing to say that would get him the information he wanted.
"Did you ever find out anything about that night?"
Trey jerked the car door open so hard he knocked Daniel back a step. "Give the department a call when your mother figures out what's missing."