Read an Excerpt
Children drown silently.
The toddler reached for the ball and toppled softly into the pool. Her arms and legs flailed valiantly as she fought a desperate solitary battle to survive. She opened her mouth to cry out, but gulped water instead. Instinctively, she locked her jaws to stop the overwhelming rush of water from invading fragile lungs. Her blue eyes widened in heart-catching fear, and she had a moment of bewilderment at the betrayal of the mother who should have been there to keep her safe. She began to lose consciousness, and the irises of her eyes rolled back until only the whites showed. As the water closed over her ears, the pretty song of the bird nearby became a muffled trill and soon dissolved completely. It was the last sound she heard. All was quiet. Air seeped from her delicate nostrils and she sank until she drifted lifelessly, like a formless amoeba, along the bottom of the pool.
The red ball she'd reached for bobbed merrily on the crystal blue surface.
Lannie woke with the familiar cold sweat beading her hairline.
She sat up, drew up her knees, and wrapped her arms around them. Eyes still closed, forehead pressed hard against her knees, she rocked back and forth.
"Gracie, lacey, dancing daisy, makes her mom a happy lady." The singsong rhyme they'd made up jangled in her head.
"Dammit, dammit, dammit."
Lannie hadn't been there when her daughter Gracie drowned, but she knew this was how it happened. She'd suffered this vivid nightmare almost every night since Gracie's death three years ago.
But she deserved the nightmare. She deserved to suffer every damnation that came her way. She should have beenthere for Gracie.
A gruff bark, and then a soft whine made her smile. She stretched out a hand and found the wiry head of O'Bryan, the Irish wolfhound who had slept at her bedside for the last two years. The reassuring feel of his rough, warm coat soothed her.
"It's okay, Bry," she whispered into her knees. "Only twice this week. I'm getting better, huh?"
He whined again.
She lifted her head and laughed. "Okay, okay. I know it's time to get up."
Early June sunlight streamed through the square screened windows. The rustic one-room log cabin faced east. When she'd first arrived she'd resented the cheery intrusion of the sun first thing every morning and had kept the shutters closed, preferring the dimness. The sun picked up the golden hues of the log interior, carefully crafted more than one hundred years ago by men who knew how to build fireplaces that drew and structures that survived. And, though the nights were still cold high on this North Carolina mountain, she kept the shutters open now and welcomed the light.
Five minutes later she was following her morning routine: letting O'Bryan out, slipping on her soft moccasins, poking up the embers that remained in the fireplace from last night, making coffee in the old tin pot and placing it on the Coleman camp stove to boil, pulling on her threadbare jeans and blue and orange Florida Gator sweatshirt.
O'Bryan barked, and she opened the screened door to sit on the stone stoop with him. Coffee mug in hand, she surveyed the colorful scene before her. The only sounds this morning were the distant wheezy cheee-up of a pine siskin, and close-by, the energetic whir of a hummingbird.
She held her breath and froze as the ruby-throated hummingbird hovered over the vivid red Indian pinks growing wild next to the stoop. She could have reached out her hand and touched its tireless body. For a blessed, sacred moment she and the hummingbird existed alone together, and then the tiny bird took impatient flight.
This had been her solitary domain for two years. Though she suspected friends had an idea where she'd disappeared to, only three people knew for sure: her father, and her friend and former law partner, Nell Smathers, and Wilkie Talley. Just this spring she'd followed her father's suggestion that she get help to put in her garden, and she'd hired their former handyman and mountain caretaker, Wilkie.
Guilt and grief had kept her company here for a long time. She hadn't really begun to appreciate the isolated plateau until the last few months, and now woke up each morning looking forward to any gifts the mountain was offering up that day.
Waves of blue-green spruce and hemlock stretched before her for endless majestic miles. Budding mauve and deep-rose hardwoods blended their colors artfully with the evergreens. A dawn mist drifted, weaving lazy lavender ribbons haphazardly through the summits. The effect was ethereal and soothing.
June might be heading into early summer elsewhere, but here near the top of Haystack Mountain early spring flowers and trees still blossomed. Yellow dogtooth violets radiated over the ground all around her and disappeared into the sharply sloping treeline.
Bry's tail began to thump rhythmically.
"Yes, I don't know how you know, but yes, we're going into town today."
She tossed the dregs of her coffee onto the ground and stood up.
"Okay, you big brute, give me a few minutes to perform my pitiful beauty routine, and then we'll leave."
Inside the cabin, she washed her face, brushed her teeth, and drew a brush through her thick red hair. A quick glance in the small rectangular mirror that hung on the wall told her that she should, at least, tame her hair in some manner.
Where was the green ribbon she'd had a month ago? She rummaged in a drawer, found a worn shoestring, contemplated its use, but then discarded the notion. The crumpled ribbon, saved from a birthday present from her father, finally showed itself in the rear corner of the drawer. Quickly, she bunched the mass of hair into a ponytail and secured it with a rubber band and the ribbon. She had no idea what she looked like from the neck down and didn't care. Grabbing her shopping list, she left the cabin.
Bry waited for her beside the olive-drab Jeep parked at the rear of the cabin and across the creek. The 1950s army-issue jeep was perfect transportation for Bry. It had no top or sides, so he could spread his big body in just about any direction. He sprang in easily, and sprawled across the back seat, his head hanging over the side. They splashed through the shallow creek that ran near the cabin and tore down the mountain. Gears screaming, brakes straining and protesting noisily, they followed a barely discernible two-track path, sloshed recklessly through other knee-high streams, and finally emerged onto a rocky dirt road that led to the main highway three miles away.
As she approached the highway, the boulder-strewn, spine-shattering ride smoothed to a rocky crumble, and she shoved into fourth gear.
The Panoz AIV roadster's swift and powerful passage up the curling mountain highway pleased and matched the personality of its owner. Drum Rutledge pressed the accelerator, and a small smile lit his grim face at the immediate response of the small car. He didn't want to be here in the first place, so he took extra pleasure in the performance provided by the special-built roadster. He also had to admit that the cool bite of mountain air was a refreshing relief from the hot weather in Charlotte.
Other than the brisk invigorating air, he found no enjoyment in his first trip to High Falls in five years.
Two reasons brought him here today: one a business favor for a friend in New York, and the other in response to an urgent phone call from the caretaker of his summer house here. A violent storm, not unusual this high in the mountains this time of year, had caused extensive damage and the man wouldn't take responsibility for repairs until Drum inspected the lodge.
He chanced a quick glance at the passing terrain and realized he was probably passing some of his own land. Usually a small, discreet dark-green sign anchored close to the ground, which said Rutledge Timber in pewter letters, marked the boundaries of his properties. But he'd let this area go untended and uninspected for a long time. So it wasn't surprising that he couldn't identify anything.
Rutledge Timber's enterprises were far-flung. He owned millions of acres of prime timber, lumber companies, and paper mills all over the world. Drum knew that Rutledge employees swore he knew every tree on every parcel, every lot line, the particular whine of every buzz saw that felled a tree, and every hand that planted a new tree to replace the old. But he'd ignored this land in North Carolina. He surmised that longtime employees knew why he didn't spend more time at the beautiful summer lodge that he'd once loved. Newer employees didn't even know it existed.
It was unlike him not to protect what was his, and not to keep a close watch on his investments, but Drum had a deep aversion for the place.
He shifted into fifth gear and swooped around a looping curve, loving the swift obedience of the small car. The mostly aluminum custom-made car had a low center of gravity so it hugged the road and handled well at high speeds. It was Saturday, and traffic was light at this time of the morning. The tourists hadn't found their way up the mountain yet. Except for pickups filled with locals on their way to construction sites and a few retirees wending their careful way to town to buy a newspaper at the convenience store, the looping, dangerous highway was his to conquer. He'd passed them all easily, smiling when the construction workers shook their fists at him.
He took the next curve on two wheels, but the joy he received in the skilled maneuver turned to fear and caught in his throat as a vehicle shot onto the highway from his right.
He stood on the brake and the clutch, downshifted, and swerved to his left. He caught the shoulder of the road, but corrected enough to stay half on the road and screeched to a halt, gravel flying. A jeep careened wildly across the road in front of him, bounced off a tree, then back onto the hard surface and to the center of the highway, rocking from side to side until it came to a complete standstill.
He remembered with alarm a lumbering old Cadillac he'd passed about a mile back. It would be coming around the curve any minute. They were all in danger.
Choking back his anger, he yelled at the driver of the jeep. "Move that piece of junk out of the middle of the road before we all get killed."
A huge brindled dog, thrown from the jeep when it hit the tree, stood protectively next to the vehicle barking at the driver. The woman raised her head, shook it as if to clear it, and looked around her.
Drum pulled onto the shoulder and shut off his motor. He leaped over the side of the Panoz and ran toward her. The Irish wolfhound turned its head, growled menacingly, and bared its teeth. Drum saw the fur on the dog's ridge rise, and he backed away a step.
"It's okay, sport. I have to get your mistress out of the middle of the road." He spoke calmly and softly, hoping the dog would back down. He loved dogs, and was good with them, but he knew this huge brute was deadly serious.
Drum heard the purr of the Cadillac coming toward them.
The wolfhound heard it also. The dog nudged roughly at the stunned woman's side, then gently took her wrist in his big mouth and pulled her from the jeep.
"Good dog," said Drum.
As the dog tugged the woman to the shoulder of the highway, Drum jumped into the decrepit contraption, stomped on the clutch, yanked protesting gears into place, and moved it onto the shoulder in front of his car as the Cadillac rounded the curve. As it passed, the elderly couple within gawked in curiosity.
Emergency over, Drum's anger surged again.
A redhead, a small bruise on her forehead, stood at stiff attention with her hands on her hips, glaring at him. The dog sat docile at her side.
"What the hell did you think you were doing?" she yelled at him. "You've got to be crazy, driving that fast on these mountain roads."
Every foul epithet he'd learned as a young lumberjack surged forth and threatened to erupt, but he fought to keep his cool.
"Look, lady, I'm the one who had the right-of-way, and I'll be damned if I'll apologize. You, and that dangerous thing you're driving, came out of nowhere. It's a blind curve, if you haven't noticed."
"Yeah, and you're the one who's blind," she spit back at him. "I've been using this road for years and this is the first time I've had any close calls."
"Has that contraption you're driving been registered lately? Do they even license jeeps like that anymore?"
She flushed guiltily, and he figured she was driving it illegally. She stuck her hands in the rear pockets of her ragged jeans and threw back her shoulders.
"You lowlanders with your fancy cars come racing through here like you own the place. Go back down to Atlanta, or Charlotte, or Charleston, or wherever the hell you came from, and stay there."
Strands of her red-gold hair had fallen into her face. She stuck out her lower lip and blew at them, but they fell back across her eyes, and she swatted at them impatiently, finally managing to tuck them behind an ear. Her toe tapped rapidly against the gravel. Her ragged Reeboks had holes in the toes and were wet, as were her jeans halfway to her knees.
"So, a redhead with the proverbial temper." He folded his arms and raked her over with his eyes. "What a shame. You look like you'd be nice to take home tonight."
He could have kicked himself. He hadn't said anything like that in years, but something about her infuriated him. He was angry enough at the close call they'd just had, and she was only fanning the flames.
She paled, and raised her hand as if to slap him, but drew back. "Why you...you..."
"Bastard?" he supplied.
"Among other things," she gasped. Her dusky gray eyes silvered as tears threatened, then dried quickly as she seemed to will them away.
Drum sucked in a quick breath. There was a mystical quality about her lovely eyes that drew him. The velvet-gray ovals were fringed by thick black lashes, but it was what the eyes portrayed that interested him. Behind the angry, defiant curtain of silver, he caught haunting shadows. He knew that look. He'd seen it before.
He took a new appraisal of the woman standing before him, and his curiosity grew. She looked like a derelict, a homeless creature of sorts. However, beneath the frayed jeans and grubby orange-and-blue sweatshirt, he noticed how regally she held herself. She was of average height, but stood tall, lifting her chin imperiously. The bulky sweatshirt camouflaged her chest, but torn, tight jeans revealed long slim legs.
He hated the brief tears he'd seen and knew he'd been acting like an ass.
"I'm sorry. My apologies. I shouldn't have said that. We're just lucky we didn't kill each other, but you should look before you shoot out of side roads like that. Where were you coming from anyway?"
She glanced across the highway at the dirt road she'd emerged from, and his eyes followed hers.
"None of your business."
Drum spotted a Rutledge Timber sign lying half-buried and askew in the weeds along the entrance to the dirt road.
His waning anger returned. This strange woman had been on his land. Of course, he knew people hiked and crossed the acreage from time to time as they did in the mountains, not realizing it was private land. That had never bothered him before.
"Maybe it is my business," he said, but decided not to pursue it. They weren't getting any friendlier, and he was wasting time, something he abhorred. He looked at his watch. "I have an appointment in town. Do you think you can get that excuse for a conveyance off the shoulder and onto the road, or should I do it for you?"
As she walked away from him, he couldn't help but notice she moved with the grace of a dancer, with an airy bounce, on the balls of her feet, toes turned slightly out. She gave him one last dirty look, ordered the dog into the jeep, and climbed in herself. Spitting gravel against his polished shoes, she roared off toward High Falls, the jeep's smelly exhaust coughing noxious fumes. What remained of the tattered canvas hanging from the rusted metal frame over her head flew in the wind like last year's football pennants.
Drum climbed back into the Panoz. Putting one hand on the body and the other on the center console, he slid his long body in under the wheel. He had planned on stopping by the lodge first to change into casual clothes, but wouldn't have time now. He needed to buy food and other essentials for the weekend before his ten o'clock appointment. Underneath this reasoning, he knew that he was simply putting off his arrival at the lodge.
Spencer Case, the director of the High Falls Summer Playhouse, had asked if they could meet at the theater at ten this morning. An ungodly hour for anyone in the theater, thought Drum. But from all he'd heard, Spencer Case wasn't your usual run-of-the-mill Broadway director, and this was summer theater.
Robert Keeting, his producer friend in New York, had coerced Drum into investing in the shows produced here this summer. He had done so gladly, happy to help an old friend and happy to give financial aid to a theater he'd enjoyed in earlier years here in High Falls. But, eventually, Keeting had called to say the summer fare "was in crisis," whatever that meant, and since Drum lived in North Carolina, would he please visit the theater and see if he could come up with some solutions.
He switched on the ignition and pulled back onto the highway with a heavy heart. The weekend had started badly, and he didn't expect it to get any better. It was only his ingrained sense of duty and friendship, and his determination to protect his investments that motivated him to press the accelerator and drive on into High Falls.
Spencer Case frowned at the newest sketches given to him by the set designer. The guy meant well, he thought, but he just wasn't hacking it. He sighed. Oh, what he wouldn't give right now for one of his eager, talented New York designers. No grumbling, Spencer. This is something you wanted to do.
He heard voices in the back of the theater, and looked from the brightly lit stage into the dimness of the house.
A tall man strode purposefully down the left aisle. He couldn't see his face, but the immaculate gleam of his shirt collar and cuffs shone blue-white in the darkness.
Spencer ran a hand over the top of his brush-cut, tugged at an earlobe, and sighed again.
"Here comes trouble," he said to his assistant.
Mae Nevins, who sat on the floor next to him, glanced up from the notes she was making.
"Who is it?"
"Robert Keeting's friend, Drummond Rutledge. He's an investor in this summer's shows. Lives in Charlotte. Got more money than God. Owns most of the timber in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Keeting figured he'd be a good troubleshooter."
"Who's in trouble?"
"Keeting thinks we are. We're considered a show in crisis."
Mae worked hard, and he was lucky to have her, but sometimes her lack of theater knowledge drove him up the wall.
"I'll tell you later."
Rutledge bounded up the stairs two at a time. His charcoal-gray suit was immaculate, trouser pleats knife sharp and bending at the correct angle on his polished loafers. But his sandy hair looked wind-blown, as if he'd stepped from the shower and forgotten to comb it and couldn't care less.
From a quick experienced once-over, Spencer decided this was not just a well-dressed, overly rich young man. The clothes were expensive and tasteful, but the ruggedly handsome face had been nicked here and there, and the nose looked as if it had been broken at least once. A short scar slashed through one eyebrow lifting it a derisive fraction. Football, rugby, fistfights? wondered Spencer.
"I am, and you're Drummond Rutledge."
"Yes." He gave Spencer a brief smile, a firm handshake, and a swift, charming Robert Redford smile, but his navy-blue eyes, so dark they were almost black, remained cold and unreadable. "I'm not going to beat around the bush here, Mr. Case. I know Keeting told you that I was just an investor interested in this summer's playbill because I have a home here. I suspect you know that I'm here for other reasons."
"Yes, I thought as much." Spencer had been prepared to dislike Drum Rutledge, but decided to withhold his opinion. The man might be brusque, but he was direct and to the point. "Robert doesn't like the dollars and cents picture coming from down here. You're really here to snoop around."
Anger sparked fleetingly from the dark eyes, but quickly faded. "I wouldn't call it snooping, but yes, I'll be hanging around for a few days. I'll try to stay out of your way. Maybe I can be more objective than you, spot some things that could help improve the operation."
God, they talk like this is a corporation, not a creative entity, Spencer thought.
"Perhaps, perhaps not. Maybe we'll always be just a struggling group, trying to put on an entertaining show for a few good audiences the old-fashioned way."
Rutledge said nothing for a moment. His frosty eyes pierced through the first layer of Spencer's outer defenses before Spencer had a chance to lock the gate. He knew he was being read by an expert, and he determined to watch his sarcastic tongue and his attitude from now on. Spencer might be a foot shorter, but he was twenty years older than this rich smart-ass, and he'd worked with all sorts of characters in and out of the theater.
Come on, Spencer. Don't let him hook your child.
"If you don't mind, I'm working on some plans here, and rehearsals start in a few minutes," Spencer continued. Yawning actors were straggling into the theater, and someone idly tickled a show tune from the piano. He spread his hand in an inclusive gesture, indicating the seats in the house. "Make yourself at home. We'll try to forget you're here."
Instead of heading for a seat in the dark theater, Rutledge stuck a hand in his trouser pocket and casually stooped to pick up a sheaf of set designs that lay on the floor.
"This what you're working on?"
The grim set of the man's jaw relaxed, and he loosened the square knot of his silk tie as he studied the first page of the design. His finger traced around a hinged joint on the blueprint, then lifted the first page to thumb swiftly through the rest of them. Spencer watched interest gather on the stern face.
"Who drew these?"
"Our technical supervisor." Spencer had given the man the courtesy of a title, but he was really little more than a local carpenter.
"I see. Any chance I could take a look at your shop?"
Spencer's heart sank. Any hope that this man was going to do a cursory inspection, stay for a couple of shows and then leave, were dispelled.
Mae Nevins said, "I'll be happy to show you around, Mr. Rutledge."
Spencer belatedly introduced the two, and his heart took another downward turn when he saw the glow on Mae's middle-aged face as she gaped in starry wonder at Drummond Rutledge. All he needed was an assistant with a crush on the man. Mae would be rendered absolutely useless. Nothing he could do about it.
He sighed. "Sure. Mae, take him to the shop, or wherever he wants to go. Let me know if you want to meet later, Rutledge. I've saved a seat for you for tonight's performance."
"Thanks," Rutledge said. "Do you have another set of these plans?"
"The head carpenter should be in the shop. He may have another set. These people aren't exactly professionals, Mr. Rutledge, but most of them have worked here before, either giving their time voluntarily or being paid a small pittance. I'd appreciate it if you didn't scare the piss out of them. If you have any concerns, please address them to me and not to my people."
"Certainly, Case. I'm not here to cause trouble."
Maybe not, thought Spencer, but my old bones are telling me otherwise. He watched as Mae, twittering non stop, led Rutledge backstage.
The ingenue for Our Town, who ordinarily avoided him like the plague, sidled up to him.
"God, who was the hunk, Spencer?"
"Just an interested visitor, Betsy," he growled. "Aren't you supposed to be learning lines?"
She skittered off like a frightened kitten.
Spencer wondered why Rutledge would be so interested in the building of the sets. He rubbed a hand over his face and tugged at his chin. One thing he knew for sure. With the arrival of Drummond Rutledge, the placid summer he'd hoped for was fading.
Copyright © 2000 by Linda Kirchman Anderson