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"M o-o-om! Look out for the ditch!"
Caroline's squeal rippled like a minor earthquake down Laurel Adams's spine. Her death grip on the steering wheel shot pain up her forearms as she hauled the car away from the telltale crunch of gravel beneath the tires.
She squinted into the smothering blanket of white. Faint streaks of yellow winked on her left-hand side. Yes, she was again in her driving lane.
A long breath eased from her throat as she let up another notch on the accelerator. They were crawling along at barely thirty-five miles per hour. She navigated more by feel than by sight. At least it was daytimethe middle of the afternoon, actually, though only her watch gave much assurance that the sun was overhead somewhere.
None of the news services had predicted this pre-Thanksgiving storm in the Rocky Mountains that had swooped out of nowhere and swallowed them in its howling maw. If she'd had any warning, she would have cancelled her speaking engagement at YMCA of the Rockies, stayed snug in Denver and dealt with her daughter's attitude in the comfort of their own home.
"Can't we turn around and go back?" Caroline's mocha-brown gaze pleaded with her mother.
"I'm sorry, sweetie." Laurel shook her head. "We must be getting close to Estes Park. It's safer to try to get that far and take shelter than to head home and hope we drive out of the storm."
Caroline scowled and let out a loud sniff. The girl had made no secret that she didn't want to come along on her mom's speaking engagement to the "praying and graying set." She'd begged to stay with their next door neighbor Janice, Laurel's best friend, like she often did when her mother traveled. Laurel hadn't consented this time, for her daughter's own goodor so she'd thought. In twenty-twenty hindsight, Caroline physically safe with Janice trumped Laurel's intention to use this trip as an opportunity for a heart-to-heart.
She spared a glance toward the teenager's sullen profile. Caroline was blooming into a pretty young woman, but at the moment she was more the pouty child. The girl's dark expression drew lines across her high forehead beneath a sleek cap of honey-blond hair and pinched a slender, straight nose into a sharp beak.
Laurel swallowed a sigh. The onset of hormonal ping-pong, normal for a girl newly thirteen years of age, couldn't be entirely to blame for the souring of her daughter's formerly sunny disposition. The downhill spiral had begun a few months ago, about the time Caroline's best friend moved away.
"I know you miss Emily," Laurel said, "but that doesn't mean you can let your schoolwork suffer. That D in biology has to improve after Thanksgiving vacation."
"Oh, come on, sweetheart. Buck up! You're not alone in the world, you know. You have a solid support system. We can get you a tutor, if you need one, or a study group. In fact, something like that might be a chance for you to get out of your shell and make new friends."
"Is that what your psychologist mind is telling you? That I've suddenly developed abandonment issues?" Caroline's gaze narrowed. "If I didn't freak out when my dad left us when I was three and never looked back, why would I lose it because Emily moved to Tulsa? I talk to her on the phone and online nearly every day."
Laurel fixed her attention straight ahead, words churning for release behind her lips. What could she say that would pop the cork on whatever festered inside her daughter's heart? In her speaker persona, Laurel was touted as the voice of calm wisdom to beleaguered single parents everywhere, but right now she didn't have a clue how to deal with her own daughter.
Caroline threw her arms around herself. "Just for the record, Ms. Eldon is a head case. If you want to shrink someone, pick on her."
"Your biology teacher? Is she hard to talk to when you need help in class? I met her at parent-teacher conferences. She seemed cool and aloof, but very knowledgeable."
"Just your type, then." Caroline waved a dismissive hand. "I'm sure you two hit it off."
If her daughter had spewed curses at her, the pain would have been more bearable. Is that how Caroline saw her mother? Detached? Distant? Laurel worked hard at being reasonable approachable, especially with her daughter.
Laurel swallowed and raised her chin. "Ms. Eldon's personality isn't the issue here. Your grades are important, young lady. You don't have to like your teacher in order to do your schoolwork. This getaway to the mountainsaway from distractionsshould provide time for you to buckle down and study."
"Only if we get there ali" A scream rent Caroline's words.
Laurel echoed her daughter as something large and dark darted out of the ditch and paused in front of them. She hit the brakes and the shuddering car skidded into a doughnut on the snow-glazed roadway. Laurel's stomach leaped into her lungs, and her pulse jackhammered.
The car abruptly crunch-slid to a halt on the gravel verge facing the wrong way on the wrong side of the road. A few thuds from the trunk told of their luggage shifting. Laurel sat, staring straight ahead, arms rigid, fingers melded to the steering wheel. The creature that had been on the road in front of them was gone.
Caroline whimpered. "What was that thing?"
"Probably a deer." Laurel inhaled long and hard, sucking her stomach back into her abdomen. "We can thank God we're not stuck in the ditch."
"Or smashed at the bottom of a cliff."
"Or wrapped around a tree." The girl's tone edged toward hysteria. "I don't think we can make it to Estes Park."
"We're going to be fine, baby girl." Laurel made herself speak firmly, confidently, like she addressed the audiences for her speaking engagements. God, help me keep that promise.
Had Laurel dragged Caroline on this trip only to kill herkill them both? The bass roar of the ceaseless wind taunted her question, rumbling like an endless sinister chuckle.
Stop it! She shoved dark thoughts away. "God's grace has seen us this far. He's not about to abandon us. Check your phone to see if we have cell service yet. It would help if we could let someone know where we are."
Laurel resisted the shove of the wind as she guided the car back onto the tarmac and into their proper lane. Rudolph himself would have been grounded in this weather. A snicker rose to Laurel's lips, but she suppressed the sound. Caroline would think her mother was succumbing to blizzard madness.
"No service," Caroline said, tone dull.
"All right, then. If Estes Park is too far, we need to find other shelter. Be on the lookout for a residential driveway. A few hardy folks live out here."
"K." The single syllable sounded more upbeat.
Psychologically, in a tense situation, it helped to have a concrete goal toward a solution. Laurel schooled her breathing to remain deep and even.
"There, Mom! On my side of the road. Looks like a driveway."
Laurel took her foot off the gas and coasted the vehicle, gaze searching the swirls of white. Sure enough, a patch of gray-black widened to their right, and a small sign listing a property address number winked between snow gusts. Did she dare hope they'd found a haven? Her heart rate fluttered. But what if this was someone's vacation getaway, and no one was home? No matter. Her jaw firmed. They'd break in if necessary. This situation was lifeor-death.
"Good girl." Laurel cramped the wheel to the right.
The rear tires fishtailed, but the nose of the car plowed faithfully into the turnoff. At least the drivewaywhich stretched on farther than she could seewas paved. The owner must be quite well off to afford the luxury.
Walls of darkness sprang up on either side of the vehicle, and the wind roar abruptly muted. Rows of sturdy pines blocked the wind's buffet, and visibility improved marginally. Still, it was hard to feel safe. The drive was too narrow, the trees loomed too close. There wasn't room to turn around in this bottleneck. They were committed to proceed until the driveway reached its destination. Long seconds passed, then minutes. Whoever owned this place must treasure seclusion in order to build so far back into the wilderness.
Finally, they emerged into a clearing, where the dense snowfall shrouded their view of a dark mass shaped like a large cabin. During split-second lulls in driving snow, a light winked at them from a window. Thank You, God! The sight meant warmth and shelter. Maybe even a roaring fire in the hearth?
As she stopped the vehicle, a muted cheer from Caroline drew a grin on Laurel's face. "Someone's home, sweetheart. I hope they don't mind company dropping in."
Caroline answered with a shaky chuckle.
"Are you ready to make a dash for it?" Laurel asked.
"Race you to the porch!" The teenager leaped from the vehicle.
"Whoa, there!" Laurel pressed her door open against the thrust of the wind. "Let me find out what sort of people live here." But her words were gobbled in the roaring gale.
Icy flakes stung her cheeks, and snow drifts swallowed her legs to the calf as she struggled around the side of the car, clutching her coat hood tight beneath her chin and her purse under one arm. She battled her way up a pair of wooden steps to find Caroline knocking on the door. So much for having an opportunity to check out their potential hosts first. As if they could afford to be choosy.
The inner door swung open, and the backlit figure of a man gazed at them from behind the screen.
"Who in thunder would be out in weather like this?"
Not the friendliest greeting she'd ever encountered. She stepped closer, edging her daughter to one side, and gazed up into the man's scowl. What was familiar about him?
Their prospective host looked to be in his mid-thirtiesnot much her senior. He was of medium height and built sinewy like a marathon runner. Not classically handsome, but arresting with that square chin, rugged cheekbones and coal-black hair curling around his ears. Piercing eyes the color of fog on the ocean scanned her up and down, then flicked toward Caroline. Icicles jabbed into Laurel's marrow as recognition dawned.
David GreeneTexas oil millionaire, and accused murderer.
The money explained the paved driveway stretching at least a mile into the woods, but it didn't explain what this unconvicted killer was doing in the Rocky Mountain wilderness.
Three years ago, he'd been the chief suspect in the strangling death of his girlfriend. The man had been found, passed out from booze and drugs, beside the dead woman, but his lawyer's machinations had gotten everything incriminating removed from evidence until a grand jury concluded there wasn't enough justification to go to trial.
What does it take these days to get a conviction? said some of the friends who worked with her in their nonprofit foundation. A sign around the louse's neck saying, I Did It? Laurel understood the sentiment. Working daily with single parents, many of them abandoned or abused, tended to expose them to examples of wealth tipping the scales ofjustice until the guilty walked free and the innocent suffered. Was the Greene case another one of those?
"You'd better come in before we all freeze." The man opened the screen door.
Caroline darted forward, but Laurel grabbed her daughter's jacket sleeve. The girl shot her a wide-eyed look. Caroline probably didn't recognize their host, or she'd be tempted like her mother to run back out into the storm. Laurel glanced over her shoulder, and a wind gust shot a geyser of snow swirling from the steps onto the backs of her legs. She shivered.
On an inner groan, she released her daughter's jacket. What choice did they have? They could freeze to death or take their chances under the roof of a possible killer.
* * *
Why today, Lord?
David assessed his unexpected guests, certain that the woman had grasped his identity in two seconds flat. She and the girl had stepped inside barely far enough for him to shut the door. The woman's wary brown gaze hadn't left himas if she thought he might leap on them at any instant with evil intent. That's what came of his brand of notoriety, and the reaction had grown old a long time ago.
The girl seemed oblivious, gazing around the rustic luxury of the cabin with hardly a second glance for her reluctant host. In fact, her gaze seemed riveted on the baby grand piano. Was he in for an afternoon of "Chopsticks" on the ivories?
Why today of all days for drop-ins, Lord?
The repeated mental question held more than a hint of a whine. Not a worthy or wise approach toward the Almighty.
David took a deep breath. Better start over, both with God and with his guests. He could hardly send the shivering pair back into the storm, however much he wanted to be alone todaythe anniversary of Alicia's death.
"HiuhI'm David Greene." As if the woman didn't know. "Leave your wet shoes on the mat by the door. May I take your coats? There's a fire." He motioned toward the cozy blaze snapping in the fireplace. Now he was babbling like an imbecile. Why could he never get used to the waves of suspicion wafting from people? He cleared his throat. "You can warm your feet."
A big grin bloomed on the girl's delicate features, an immature copy of her companion's more defined face. The girl's mother or her older sister?
"Great! I'm Caroline," the teenager said as she scraped her snow-laden shoes off her feet. She tipped her hood down, revealing a thick blond ponytail, and then shrugged out of the jacket. Underneath she wore the standard teenage garb of jeans and layered shirts.
The woman responded more slowly, shedding her soggy shoes and long coat, reluctance etched in drawn brows. She wore a green print blouse and a pair of tan slacks. The outfit complimented her fair complexion and slender figure. In her stocking feet, the top of her tawny head barely reached David's chin. She clutched her coat tight to her chest, even as the girl relinquished hers to his care.
"I'm Laurel Adams, and this is my daughter, Caroline," the woman said.
A soft flush of color crept across high cheekbones as she no doubt realized that the girl had already introduced herself. At least now the relationship between the pair was clarified.
Rubbing her hands together, Caroline took off for a spot near the hearth. The girl sank into an easy chair and extended her toes toward the fire.
"Way cool that you're out here in the middle of nowhere," she said. "I pictured Mom and me as popsicles in a ditch or pancakes over the edge of a cliff." She darted David a half smile.
He grinned back, and the tension under his breastbone eased. He could like this kid. Of course, she might not be so friendly with him when her mother informed her who he was.
A stiff smile tipped the corners of Laurel's lips. "Thank you for taking us in, Mr. Greene."
Like he had an option? But then, since she assumed him a killer, she probably thought he was fully capable of slamming the door in their faces.
Suppressing an inner sigh, David took hold of Laurel's jacket, his direct stare challenging her to release the garment. She let it go and backed away, gaze darting between her daughter and him. He headed for the coat closet next to the entrance to the kitchen. Receding footfalls said that his lovely, frightened guest had scurried for the hearth.