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Brianne held the heavy silver picture frame with both hands, staring fondly at the photo of the smiling couple behind the glass.
Three years, she thought. Three years since you've been gone.
Brianne wore an ear-to-ear grin in the picture, more giggle than smile. She'd been giddy with happiness as she'd posed with Carter Smith, the man who'd stolen her heart at a point when she hadn't expected to fall in love. She and Carter were standing against a palm tree, the picturesque stretch of sand and blue water in Hawaii behind them. Even if Brianne and Carter hadn't been in Maui for a romantic vacation, she would have remembered exactly when the photo had been taken.
It had been taken the day Carter had proposed to her.
The helicopter ride Carter had booked for them turned into the most memorable moment of all when he'd surprised Brianne with an exquisite cushion-cut diamond engagement ring. Soaring over a volcano, Carter had asked Brianne to marry him, and she had enthusiastically said yes. Emotionally, she'd been higher than any cloud, expecting that nothing would happen to destroy the happiness she'd been feeling at the time. Brianne had been in love and looking forward to a wonderful life with the man of her dreams. At the time, she couldn't imagine anything ever going wrong.
But things had gone wrong. Barely two months after they'd gotten engaged. All at once, everything had changed.
Brianne's eyes misted as she regarded the photo of her and Carter in happier times. It was still hard to believe what had happened, much less accept it.
And yet, here she was, without Carter. Today was the three-year anniversary since that tragic, cold day in the Rocky Mountains.
Gone. In an instant. Carter Smith had simply vanished.
That was the hardest part to bear, the not knowing if he was alive or dead.
The authorities had been of a different opinion than Brianne. No, they hadn't found Carter's body, but they had found remnants of the torn and bloodied jacket he'd been wearing. Given that finding, coupled with the unexpected snowstorm, they'd surmised that Carter had lost his way on the mountain and that the unthinkable had happened. Months later, hikers had stumbled upon Carter's backpackwhich included his passportapproximately ten miles from the spot where they'd found his jacket. That had solidified the opinion that he had died.
Brianne could not deny that the snowstorm had likely led to Carter getting lost. But what she did not acceptcould not acceptwas that the man who had so enthusiastically loved the outdoors and could cope in almost any circumstance could have become a victim of nature. The authorities believed one of two possibilities: the first was that Carter had died during the snowstorm and his remains had been eaten by animals. The second possibility was even worse to imaginethat Carter had been attacked and killed by hungry wildlife while alive.
Brianne shuddered. She didn't want to let her mind go there. Thinking that Carter had died was bad enough, but imagining that his body had been eaten That part was too much to contemplate. And yet, she had nightmares about exactly that.
But despite the nightmares, Brianne had been able to cling to some hope. The hope that since there had been no body, maybe Carter was still alive.
Before Carter's disappearance, Brianne had seen stories on the news about people who had been missing for years, only to turn up unexpectedly one day suffering from amnesia. After Carter's disappearance, she had become addicted to such stories. Four months after Carter was gone, she broke down and bawled when she saw a story on the news about a man in Oregon who had survived some mishap in the wilderness and had resurfaced across the country a year later. Brianne believed fervently that this would be the news she would one day get regarding Carter.
Shayna didn't believe Carter was alive. Nor did anyone else in her family. But how could Brianne allow herself to think that Carter was dead when it was just as possible that he was alive somewhere, not knowing who he was and therefore unable to get back to her?
Perhaps she was naive to hope. But she hadn't wanted to give up. Now, however, on the three-year anniversary of Carter's disappearance, she was wondering if she had simply been lying to herself the entire time.
Just because you wished something was true didn't make it so.
After three years, Brianne needed some sort of closure, and that closure would not come by hanging on to the hope that Carter might return. As hard as it was going to be, she had to say a final goodbye to him.
If Carter had not returned yet, it was likely that he never would. Her sister, Shayna, had tried to encourage her to move on for her own sanity.
Brianne knew that Shayna was right. Moving on was truly the only way she would ever heal. Sometimes in life bad things happened. This was one of those times.
Brianne replaced the framed photo on her dresser and drew in a deep breath in an attempt to calm her frayed nerves. Perhaps a trip to the Rockies would help her get closure. She had felt helpless at the time when Carter was lost. The authorities had searched the mountains, as had Alex ThorpeCarter's best friend, who had accompanied him on the ill-fated hiking trip. Brianne had gone crazy with worry at a nearby hotel, waiting for word, unable to do anything to aid in the search. All she could do was pray.
There had been a memorial service organized by Carter's family, held at the Rockies. But Brianne had stubbornly refused to attend and had instead returned home. One year later, in Buffalo, she had attended the memorial service marking the one-year anniversary of Carter's disappearance. She had done so out of respect for Carter's family rather than a desire to move on, but she had been angry at almost everyone in attendanceat all the people who had so quickly chosen to believe that their friend and family member was not coming back.
Before, Brianne had doggedly not wanted to give in to the belief that Carter was dead, as if just wishing him alive would influence reality.
Now she had to move on. And maybe the only way to do that was to go to the last place Carter had been seen alive. Have her own private memorial for Carter at the Rockies and bid him a final goodbye.
As she made her way downstairs to the kitchen, the idea felt right. Yes, she would plan a trip to British Columbia. It would be nice to go with Shayna, but her sister had just gotten married, and she and her new husband, Donovan, were still honeymooning in Jamaica. Brianne's parents were also out of town, having decided to spend an extra week in Jamaica as well.
There was no reason Brianne couldn't go to British Columbia alone. In fact, maybe that was best. A quiet time for reflection, to make peace with what had happened.
Brianne was a manager at Scented Suds, a store that sold a variety of luxury body soaps and lotions. As a manager, she was entitled to several weeks of vacation per year. But she had just returned from Jamaica two days ago and didn't like the idea of requesting more time off without much notice. However, it was necessary. Alexis, the store's assistant manager, would certainly be able to manage the store in her absence. Brianne would have to run the request by Marlene, the district manager. She didn't doubt that Marlenewho knew firsthand the stress Brianne had gone through when Carter had disappearedwould allow her this additional time off.
Brianne got herself a low-fat granola bar and a bottle of water from the kitchen and then went back up to her room, where she booted up her laptop. The smart thing would be to check for flights and find out when it was most economically feasible to head to Canada. Then she could call Marlene with a definite time frame.
It would have been nice to be there today, the official anniversary. But the thought had come to Brianne too late. The truth was, it was a thought she hadn't even considered. Perhaps it was seeing her sister and Donovan, so much in love on their wedding day, that was leading her to take that final step toward closure.
Three years had passed. It was time she made peace with the fact that Carter wasn't coming back.
She was only twenty-seven. Far too young to accept that she would never get married. She couldn't even imagine falling in love with someone else, but Brianne knew that time healed all wounds. One day, she would fall in love again.
While she couldn't be at the Rockies today, Brianne had waited three years to get to the point where she finally felt like she could move on. She could wait a week or so more.
And for her, moving on meant more than accepting that Carter wasn't coming back. It was letting go of the anger she felt toward Carter's best friend, Alex. Alex had been with Carter that fateful day, and he had come out of the mountain alive. Her rational brain knew that Alex wasn't responsible for what had happened to Carter, but he had never satisfactorily explained why he had gotten off the mountain and Carter had not.
Brianne had been looking for answerssomething she'd made very clear to Alex on the few occasions that they'd spoken. Now, she was beginning to consider just how hard the whole ordeal must have been for Alex. To be the one who survived, while his friend had not. He had probably replayed the day's events over and over in his head, wondering if there was one thing he could have done differently that would have changed the outcome. Brianne certainly hadand she hadn't even been on the trip.
She wasn't the only one who'd lost someone that cold November day. Alex Thorpe had lost a friend and business partner, and the guilt he felt because he hadn't been able to save Carter had likely eaten at him over the years.
Brianne poised her fingers over the keyboard, ready to type. But then she thought she heard the doorbell.
She paused, straining to listen. A few seconds later, she knew she had heard correctly when the doorbell sounded again.
She got up from the small desk in the corner of her room, wondering who might be here. It was early evening, just after six, but dark outside. She didn't expect solicitors, nor a delivery person. Maybe it was her best friend, Kim, whom she'd spoken to earlier, coming to help get her mind off of the past.
Brianne hurried downstairs and then looked through the peephole as she always did before swinging the door open. But what she saw there made her reel backward.
Rather, who she saw there.
She was flabbergasted.
It may have been dark, but she knew her eyes were not deceiving her. Even if never in a million years did she expect to see him.
Indeed, two full years had passed since she'd laid eyes on him.
And yet, it made perfect sense that he was here. He, like she, had been forever affected by what had happened on this day three years ago.
The doorbell sounded again. Slowly, Brianne unlocked and opened the door. And there stood Alex Thorpe, on her small front porch, with a serious expression on his face.
And though Brianne had told herself only moments ago that she should hold no anger toward him, it flared again. As irrational as it was, Alex was a physical outlet for her pain and frustration. A person she could blame for something that had been out of everyone's control.
"Brianne." Alex spoke her name, as serious as the expression on his face.
Brianne said nothing. She didn't know what to say. The last time she and Alex had spoken, two years ago exactly, he'd gotten her so angry she'd stormed off.
"It's been a year, Brianne. There's been no sign of him. No action in any of his bank accounts. And he was never documented crossing the border back into the States. Do you really expect Carter to walk back into your life? What are you hanging on to?"
And Brianne realized, in that instant, why she'd been so angry with Alex over the past couple of years. At first, she had thought it was because Alex had been Carter's partner in crimethe guy Carter always went off with on his thrill-seeking adventures. From sky-diving to extreme skiing to base jumping off of buildings to hiking mountains in bad weather. It had been easy to think that if Alex had refused to go with Carter, Carter might not have gotten lost on that mountain.
But it was more than that, and Brianne now knew why. Alex had been Carter's best friend, and yet he had so easily given up on him. Like the others who wanted to declare him dead and move on, Alex had done the very same thing.
But as a best friend, she had expected him to want to do all in his power to find Carter. To travel to the ends of the earth, if that was necessary. To leave no stone unturned, as the saying went. Instead, on the one-year anniversary of Carter's disappearance, Alex had told her that she was foolishly hanging on to hope.
"I'm holding on to our love!" Brianne had shouted at him outside the church, not meaning to yell. "And what exactly happened on the mountain? How did you and Carter get separated? How is it that you came off of the mountain alive, but he didn't?"
Alex hadn't answered the question, just advised her that it was time for her to accept reality. That was when Brianne had stormed off, away from Alex Thorpe, not caring if she never saw him again.
And yet here he was, on her doorstep two years later.
"You shouldn't be here," she said to him now. She might have resolved to let go of her anger toward him, but him being here was stirring up the uncertainty and helplessness she'd felt surrounding Carter's disappearance. If they spoke again, it had to be when she was ready. When she could talk to him without the weight of Carter's disappearance between them.
"I know you don't want to see me," Alex said, his voice low. "And trust me, I wouldn't be here if this wasn't important. But what I have to say it needed to be in person." He paused for a moment, huddling into his leather jacket as a cold breeze swirled. "Can we talk inside?"
Brianne looked beyond him to the late-model, high-end Mercedes parked at her sidewalk. It was black and sparkled beneath the streetlights. She knew it was hiswhich meant he'd driven here.