A Taste of... Autumn's Risk
Natalie Garland grinned as the early morning breeze whirled through the car windows, fluttering her hair and filling her lungs with the crisp pine scent. Cruising down the shadowed highway with the first hints of sunlight outlining peaks and dips in the mountainous horizon, she remembered what life was like before. The person she had been…but more so, who she still was, even now.
She belted the next line in time with Kelly Clarkson. “What doesn’t thrill you makes you wrrooonger…”
She’d loved this damn song as a kid. Granted, along with her middle school bestie, she’d taken some creative liberties with the lyrics, but she still loved it.
Their changes only made the tune more sentimental.
That was one of the best discoveries she’d made as she’d crawled out of the hell her life had nosedived into two years ago, following a horrid series of heartbreaks. Natalie had realized that she was still Natalie, despite everything she’d lived through.
She’d always been a bit wild. Independent. There hadn’t been many boring moments growing up because Natalie found adventure everywhere. It was nice to know that all her personal devastation hadn’t wiped that girl away.
She was altered, she could admit, but essentially the same. And as cheesy as the cliché was, what hadn’t killed her truly had made her stronger.
As Natalie sped past an ancient green road sign announcing Rutshire, the weight of the world lessened a little bit more. She was a mere few miles away from home, and the pain that had accompanied her when she fled the confines of that tiny Virginia town was no longer her constant companion.
She wanted to be here. She’d chosen to come here.
She was ready to face the ghosts of her past. Ready to face her family again. Ready to move forward.
Grabbing her phone from the passenger’s seat, she took her eyes off the road for a second to glance at the screen. Bradley was calling. Of course.
Bradley Garland, her cousin and city councilman of the mighty blip on the map that was Rutshire, had always been an early riser. She’d never understood his affinity for mornings when they were younger.
She understood it now.
Mornings had become her favorite part of the day over the past couple years. Viewing the sun rise had transformed into a sacred experience she felt deeply honored to witness. Learning to appreciate the grandeur of the ordinary had been a paramount part of her recovery from the drugs and alcohol she’d struggled with so terribly. Nature had helped release her from the postpartum depression that had seized her by the neck following her miscarriage.
Natalie tapped the speaker button. “Four-fifty-eight in the morning? Why am I not surprised?”
Bradley’s laugh filled the car. “Early bird catches the worm, dear cousin.”
It was so good to laugh in response. “For some reason, that fact never held much sway with me.”
“Yeah, you have a point. Mornings got a little shafted on the slogans. But look at you…up and at ‘em with the best of us.”
Natalie rolled her eyes as she steered the car to hug a curve in the road. “As a former night owl, I resent that remark.”
“Sorry, Nat. Your vampire license has been revoked.” Bradley delivered the news in a solemn voice.
She liked that sentiment. Nothing good had happened after the sun went down over the past two years. Far too many old and destructive habits were easier kept in the dark of the night. Every addict knew that.
“So.” Bradley cleared his throat. “You’re on the road? Just like we talked about?”
Her headlights illuminated the thick tree lines to her left and right, which were just beginning to show the varying shades of July in the dim light. “Just like we talked about,” she confirmed. “Almost to the falls, actually. Going to catch the sunrise from my favorite peak before I head into town.”
Bradley gasped in feigned indignity. “How many times did I beg you to go for a morning hike with me at Dogwood Falls growing up? You always turned me down. That cuts deep, Nat. Super deep.”
She laughed, enjoying the way the elation bubbled up from her throat and overtook the peaceful morning air. “I’ll carry the guilt with me to the grave.”
“Yeah. Right.” His dramatic snigger tickled her, making her snigger along. “But seriously, you sound good. Happy.” The relief in his voice was unmistakable.
Natalie slowed her car, preparing for the sharp right turn into the entrance of Dogwood Falls. “I am happy. Things are looking up, cuz. I’m coming home.”
“And how does that return make you feel?” Bradley needled in his gentle way.
She would have jabbed him in the ribs with her finger if they’d been face-to-face, just like she used to do when they were little. “You should have been a shrink. That’s total shrink talk.”
He let out a dry chortle. “Well, as your local city councilman, I do get to deal with a lot of disturbed people far, far too often.”
Natalie pulled her car to a stop in the gravel parking lot she’d often frequented during her adolescence. “I never should have put so much distance between my parents and me. No good came from cutting them off, but I wasn’t thinking clearly then. Losing the baby…that really threw me offtrack. Threw me off the planet. But I’m back. I’m better.”
“I can hear it in your voice.” Bradley’s optimism seemed to grow in direct proportion to her own. “Can’t wait to have you home again. We’ve got two years of small-town gossip to catch you up on. And I’m sorry, but I’m massively relieved that you got away from those people.”
She sighed, pulling her keys from the ignition. “I swear. Clean break. I’m done with them. I want to reconnect with my old life. My real life. Even if it’s flawed as hell.”
“We’re all flawed, Nat. Don’t go thinking you’re special or something.” He chuckled, but she perceived the affection in his words.
“Apparently, I’m going to have to convince Rod that I’m not that special.” She huffed, shaking her head in mild frustration.
Bradley groaned his disgust. “Don’t tell me ole Nim-Rod is back at ya again. Pardon my French, but he’s a complete and total piece of shit if I ever saw one.”
“You know, I took French in high school,” Natalie reminded her cousin. “The proper terminology is morceau de merde. Much classier that way. And…yeah. He’s been trying to get in touch with me repeatedly. Thinks we should give our relationship another shot. But there’s no future there. Rod hurt me in a way he can never take back or make up for.”
“Damn right, he did.” Her cousin was almost growling now. “He left you alone when you were pregnant with his child. He left you because you were pregnant with his child. Do you know how many times I’ve run into that sonofabitch around town and wanted to pummel his stupid face in?”
Natalie closed her eyes, not wanting to relive that particular moment right now. There was something about remembering the cold, dead stare in her boyfriend’s eyes when she told him of her pregnancy that dropped a shadow of despair on the brightest of moods.
Mornings were too special to taint them with thoughts of Rod Norris, so she mentally shook them out of her head. “I can imagine, Braddy. I can imagine. But hey, I’m at the falls, and if I don’t get moving, I’ll miss the sunrise.”
“Fine. Good. Go.” Bradley seemed to sense her need to avoid that subject. For now. “Dinner tonight at Rosie’s?”
“Seven sharp. Be there or be…not there.” Natalie pushed her driver’s side door open and giggled again, loving that she could be a dork with her cousin. He’d never judged her. Never did anything but love and support her, even when she couldn’t love or support herself.
“It’s a plan. Love ya, Nat.”
“Love ya, Braddy.” She ended the call and dropped her phone in the front pocket of her backpack, which was stocked with water, granola bars, nuts, and a first aid kit.
There was a time when hiking was just an unappealing form of exercise, and the peaks of Dogwood Falls were good for one thing and one thing only…making out with Rod.
But those days were long gone. She enjoyed the physical exertion now. The snapping of twigs and crunching of leaves beneath her feet, the chorus of chirping that filled the forest, and the sensation that with every step she took, she was restoring pieces of her inner self.
The hike was a steady climb. One she was familiar with. An hour later, she arrived at her chosen peak, the highest point at Dogwood Falls. A narrow rock cliff, worn mostly smooth by centuries of rainfall, jutted out straight over the river and stopped just short of entering the massive downpour. Hikers could get just close enough to feel the spray of cascading water, but not without experiencing the alarming reality of being suspended in the sky with nothing to guard them from slipping over the edge.
Natalie was proud of herself for coming here, all alone, to the top of the falls. She’d always had a slight fear of heights, but that was nothing compared to her outright phobia of water. Throughout her recovery, she’d worked diligently to make peace with this force of nature, focusing on the beauty of water instead of its dangers.
She had a rather good reason for her fear. At only eight years old, she’d nearly drowned in the Atlantic Ocean while vacationing with her parents. The first day had been Epcot and funnel cakes, the second day a traumatizing brush with death.
Wandering out in the ocean water by herself, timid and careful, she’d still managed to walk straight toward a sudden drop-off. Her swimming abilities at that age were questionable at best, and she’d only been saved because a fellow tourist farther down the beach had caught sight of her entering the ocean and disappearing in a split second.
He’d sprinted and dove into the water, retrieving her tiny body and bringing her safely back to shore. The catastrophe had barely been avoided.
Her parents, protective and watchful as they almost always were, had missed the entire event. Little Natalie was right there, and then she wasn’t.
The idea that she could lose her life in the blink of an eye, even when in the company of the people she trusted to protect her, had left her with nightmares and panic attacks for years. Those had passed for the most part, but the terror of deep water…rivers, oceans, lakes, all of it…had followed her right into her twenty-second year of life.
Overcoming the addiction she’d fallen prey to since losing Rod’s baby twenty-eight weeks into her pregnancy had opened the door to conquering all of the demons in her life, not just the alcohol. Natalie had attacked her fear of water, determined to take back her power.
She was now completely sober and had made great strides in reclaiming the joys of nature she’d experienced as a little girl, before the Florida incident. Though she was much better now, she’d accepted the fact that sobriety and living free of fear were two battles that would more than likely be lifelong.
Addicts didn’t just stop being addicts. They stopped feeding their addiction and fought like hell to keep it at bay. Forever.
There was no way she’d ever forget those terrifying moments of struggle and terror in the ocean that day, but as long as she remembered to search for the beauty that was present in water, she’d be okay.
Right now, she stood roughly eight-hundred feet in the air amidst the thunderous roar of the falls, and she wasn’t scared.
She finally wasn’t scared.
Natalie sat down, ready to witness the sunrise and drink in the wonders of nature and freedom. Pleasant tingles along her arms reminded her once again of just how happy she was with life these days.
Sadness threatened to swamp her as the memories came flooding back. Much had been lost. Time with her parents, the love she’d felt for Rod, and the worst…the hardest to reconcile her heart with…the baby.
But she’d survived, recovered, and returned as strong as steel.
In her therapy, she’d learned that it was okay to be sad. That sadness was a reminder of how important someone or something was to you, and tears didn’t mean that a person was weak.
She’d also learned that it was okay to be angry too. She allowed that emotion to come and go as she thought of the man who’d so very badly broken her heart and trust.
Rod had loved this very peak. He’d insisted that messing around up here in the sky with the falls booming around them made him feel like an animal. Wild.
Why did you have to turn out to be such a douchebag, Rod? Why?
Never in a million years would she rekindle her relationship with that man, but she had to admit, even now, that there had been a certain enjoyable savagery to those moments with Rod, though she’d certainly never ventured far out on the cliff. All activity had taken place at a very safe and respectable distance from the dangerous edge.
The small distance between her seat and certain death in this moment would have given her seizures back then.
Not all change was bad.
A twig snapped behind her, and she jumped, heart pounding as she turned to scan the trees behind her.
Darkness stared back. The sunrise was in motion, but there wasn’t enough light yet to make out much of anything beyond shadows.
Hiking alone in the still-dark hours of the morning, hm? She could almost hear her mom saying the words. Probably not your best idea ever.
After half a minute of silence, Natalie’s shoulders relaxed, and she laughed at her silliness. She was in the woods. Of course there would be rustling in the trees. Probably just a squirrel or a bunny.
This was an epic moment for her, and she wouldn’t lose it to terror of the unknown. She’d lost enough of her life in that manner. Besides, on the slim chance a larger animal was out there, she had mace in her backpack.
She tugged on the navy straps, bringing the bag closer to her in an instinctive moment of awareness. There. Right beside her. Zipper opened and everything. Just in case.
Now, enjoy the damn sunrise!
How could anyone not get sucked into that sky? Sun rays shot across the darkened mountain range in bold golden streaks. The horizon almost appeared to be on fi—
Natalie’s fingers clenched around the metal cylinder containing her mace as the rustling grew closer. Too loud for a bunny. Too big too. A tall shadow moved, and she stopped breathing. Definitely not a rabbit. Bear?
Rising to her feet, her hand trembled as she wrestled the switch to the on position. Her mind raced through every bear fact she could recall.
Black bears can be scared off. Loud noises, making yourself look big. Not grizzly bears, though. Loud noises just piss them off more. With them, playing dead often works best. There aren’t any grizzly bears here, though, right? Right?
Determination pushed through the fear, silencing the frantic thoughts. Her hand steadied on the mace. She’d spent too much of her life playing dead already. Black bear, grizzly, or Sasquatch, she didn’t care. Whatever predator was out there, she’d stand her ground and fight.
The shadow emerged and took shape. Thinned out to reveal a human form. Her frozen lungs thawed as some of her terror subsided.
No claws. No sharp teeth. Just another person. Unexpected? Yes. But probably just another hiker out to enjoy the early morning show. Either way, she could handle herself now. She’d been through too much to—
The man stepped closer, and her tension drained from her muscles. Oh, thank god.
“What are you doing here? You nearly scared me half to death. I thought you were a bear for a second.”
Natalie dropped the mace back into her bag with an irritated sigh. How on earth had he known she was up here? Bradley never would have told a soul, not that there were many to tell this early in the morning anyway. Had she been followed?
He held up both hands, looking earnest. “I swear to God and all that is holy, I had no idea you’d be up here. What are the freaking odds? I come here sometimes to think. And watch the sunrise, of course.” There wasn’t even a hint of a lie in the tone, but Natalie felt far from convinced.
She lifted an eyebrow. “It’s a pretty damn big coincidence.”
The innocent act continued with a small lift of shoulders. “Life’s full of ‘em. That’s what I’ve learned, and I’ve learned a lot.”
Natalie turned the idea of meeting this exact person at the highest peak of Dogwood Falls so early on a Thursday morning over in her mind. People did do a lot more outdoorsy stuff in the summer months, especially around here. The falls were a huge draw, but so were the campground and hiking trails and horse trails and…
In the end, she mentally shrugged. His presence was unfortunate, maybe, but it was also feasible that the run-in was accidental. The most obnoxious accident ever, but still. Not out of the realm of possibility.
“Fine. Surprise, I’m here,” she joked, attempting to cover the awkwardness of the situation with a little dry humor.
This earned her a laugh. “I see that. And what exactly would bring you here today?”
Why did the question hit like an accusation? There was hostility in the words that she couldn’t quite place or explain. She hadn’t done anything wrong.
“Honestly? This just felt like the perfect place to end one chapter of my life and start another.” Natalie sat back down and rested her chin on her knees, returning her gaze to the sky. “These falls mean a lot to me.”
“Right.” Her impromptu guest seemed to relax as well. “I get that. Lots of old times here.”
She nodded. “Old times, and hopefully new times as well.”
“You know, I feel terrible about everything you’ve gone through.” Genuine affection edged the words. “Losing the baby must have crushed you. Nobody deserves that type of pain. I wish it had worked out differently.”
Natalie raised her head and locked eyes with him. “Me too.”
“Natalie…this chapter you’re about to start…will you be starting it with me?”
The question held another unspoken inquiry, which she answered in a firm voice. “I’m going home to see my family.” No need to paint an unclear picture here. She was back for one reason only. “I want to be with them again. Reconnect.”
A loud sigh of disappointment carried across the bluff. “You seem different.” Intense eyes homed in on her face. “You seem more distant than the Natalie I know.”
She knew he didn’t understand, so she tried to be as gentle as possible, even though she really wanted to scream. “I think I have good reason to be. I’ve decided we should cease all contact, okay?” The words fell out of her mouth unplanned, but she stood behind them regardless.
Just let me stare at the falls. Let me be with the sunrise. Go away.
“But we’ve…the times we’ve shared.” Stunned words from a horrified face. “We’ve been close, Natalie. We know each other’s secrets. You can’t seriously mean to just drive into Rutshire and never speak to me again. Come on.”
Natalie locked eyes with him. “I mean to do exactly that. We were close, but now…I want to reconnect with my family. That is all I want, okay?”
“Ole Bradley the councilman one of those beautiful reunions? Did he convince you to do this?” There was no missing the hostility now.
Anger flamed in her chest. “The reasons for my change of heart are none of your concern.” Taking stock of the harshness in her own voice, Natalie attempted to level herself. “I’ll never have a single bad word to say about you, okay? I’m here for a fresh chance at life, and this is the path I’ve decided to take. I know it’s not your number one pick, but it’s also not your choice.”
She refocused on the sunrise, more than mildly perturbed to be partaking of the spectacular show with company she hadn’t asked for. But a few deep breaths, and she was back in that mesmerized wonder at the kaleidoscope of colors splaying across the sky.
“I understand, Natalie. I’m going to miss you terribly. Things just won’t be the same.” Sorrow seeped into his words.
She would have felt bad two years ago. She would have felt bad six months ago. But today was her day. Her emotions didn’t belong to anyone else, and she refused to hand them over in the midst of her joy.
However, any moment wasn’t too soon for this “coincidental run-in” to end. After a minute or two passed and she still wasn’t alone, Natalie decided it didn’t matter. The sunrise was beautiful to witness, alone or otherwise, and today was a new start regardless of this unforeseen bump along the road.
She’d endured worse “surprises” in life, after all.
For the next ten minutes or so, she tuned his presence out, drinking in the colorful sky. Once the oranges and pinks faded into clear blue, the time had come to leave. Hoping she wouldn’t have an unwanted companion the entire hike back down, she gathered her things and cast a final glance the intruder’s way. “Goodbye.”
The word sent power surging through her veins. She was in charge. Mistakes had been made, but she’d grown from them. This was a new track, stretching out to the proverbial sunset like a—
A hand clamped firmly on her arm, and she stiffened with annoyance. Some people could just not take a hint.
She didn’t bother turning around. “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but we’re done here. I’m ready to move on—”
Her sentence ended in a shriek as he began dragging her toward the edge of the cliff…toward the heart of the waterfall. “Stop, this isn’t funny! What the hell are you doing?” She fought to keep her footing as her hiking boots skidded through the loose dirt.
Instead of replying, his other hand clamped over her mouth.
Icy fear surged through her veins, and for a single instant, Natalie froze. An instant later, her survival instincts erupted. She kicked, pulled, tried to bite her human gag. She could fight her way out of this. She would. She’d always been smaller in stature but fit. Strong.
Or had been…up until the miscarriage. And the alcohol. Now, she was feeble. Her muscles were already tiring out. She needed regeneration. She needed home.
The hand disappeared from her mouth, allowing sweet air to rush inside her lungs. The relief sweeping through her was dizzying, making her sway on her feet.
A prank. A terrible, stupid prank. Or else he was trying to scare her into going back.
Once they returned to safe ground, she would rip him a new one. First, she needed to catch her breath.
Before she could, his free hand grabbed her opposite arm and dragged her farther, forcing her perilously close to the edge. The dark blue waters swirled at the bottom of the falls, charging over jagged boulders with a speed that made her stomach plummet and her mouth go dry.
She stood very, very still. Too petrified to twitch a single muscle, let alone fight.
“Please.” Calm. She would plead her case in a calm, concise manner, and she would live. The rest would be sorted through later. “Please let me go. I’m not a threat to you. You have my word. Just let me go, and we can both walk away. I’ll never tell a soul this happened.”
Natalie summoned enough courage to turn her head slowly, locking eyes with the much stronger human who literally held her life in his hands. Surely looking at her would remind him of the affection and bond between them.
The eyes gazing back at her were cold. Hard.
This can’t be happening. This isn’t going to happen.
“I wish things could have been different, Natalie. I still care about you. I will always care about you, but I just can’t let you ruin everything. I won’t.” The emotion was gone now. No anger, no love, no sorrow…only a robotic emission of words.
Blood rushed through her ears, pounding to the beat of her galloping heart. “No! No. I won’t ruin anything. I promise you! You can’t—”
Mid-plea, he shoved Natalie backward, flinging her from the peak. Arms flailing, she kicked her feet, but there was nothing beneath them. Nothing but air.
A moment of weightlessness. Of soaring. Gravity took over and she plunged straight down. Wind whistled in her ears as she nosedived into a hell she’d never imagined.
I’m sorry, Brad—
Natalie’s head struck rock, and pain exploded in her skull. Icy spray misted her skin, and she drew her last breath to the deafening roar of the waterfall she’d been so excited to experience that morning.
Mercifully, the swift death saved her from the horror of the churning water that swallowed her body, shoving her down into the darkened depths below.
Autumn Trent rested her head against the sofa cushion and ran her fingers through Toad’s thick fur. From his upside-down position in her lap, the peculiar little Pomeranian mix wriggled and moaned, gazing at her with his snaggle-toothed grin. Some might deem Toad’s underbite unattractive, but she didn’t care. He was her faithful companion whenever she was home. He always forgave her absences with instant demonstrations of love via face licks and tail wags.
Toad had a lot to forgive as of late.
She scratched the dog’s chest. “Sorry, buddy, twenty weeks was a long time to be away. You probably thought I’d deserted you.”
When Aiden Parrish first pulled her into a fast-tracked position with his Behavioral Analysis Unit, the Special Supervisory Agent made it clear that if Autumn wanted to become a true FBI agent, attending the training academy was a must. But the idea of traveling to Quantico to fulfill the requirements and the reality of it were two entirely different things. Even now, the fact that she’d completed the course felt a little unreal.
Done. Her training was done, and today marked her first official twenty-four hours as Special Agent Autumn Trent, working with the FBI’s BAU out of the Richmond Field Office.
Satisfaction rippled through her body. Special Agent. That title had such an invigorating ring to it. She’d never felt more accomplished, capable, powerful…
After earning a Ph.D. in forensic psychology as well as a Juris Doctorate, Autumn had plenty of reasons to be proud of herself before this latest feat. Even so, she’d wanted this job. The title. All the danger and excitement that went with being a federal agent.
As with any of her previous accomplishments, she’d set her sights and climbed until she reached her goal. Now was the time to witness all her work meld together on a career path that she’d fought for, piece by hard-earned piece.
When she’d first arrived home from Quantico last week, she’d taken a few days to tie up loose ends with her old job and get her paperwork in order at the Bureau. Before attending FBI training, Shadley and Latham had been her employer, and she’d contracted out to work with the FBI. That arrangement was done. Mike Shadley was no longer her boss, and his firm wasn’t her backup plan.
The FBI was her employer now. Her only employer. And being a special agent was her job. Period.
Excitement and nervousness rushed through her body, swirling together to form a potent concoction that made her light-headed and jittery in the best possible way. Autumn had worked her ass off to get here. She was more than ready for a fresh start.
Peach meowed from her lounging spot on the kitchen counter. The ginger tabby was much less forgiving than Toad, refusing all attempts at cuddling.
Even as Toad stretched across Autumn’s lap, exposing his belly and relishing the rubs that followed, Peach narrowed her feline eyes at her owner. The expression on her furry face reeked of the same resentment she’d exhibited since Autumn’s return, but now there was an almost human quality in the tabby’s gaze too. A malicious gleam.
“Ah, Peachy. Please stop staring at me like you’re going to kill me in my sleep.”
Autumn chuckled at the thought. Peach would forgive her in time. Probably.
Three swift knocks at her apartment door informed her that Special Agent Winter Black had arrived. This was their first morning run together, and Autumn braced herself for an ass whooping. Unlike her, Winter had been running on a daily basis for years.
Autumn threw open the door with a gusto saved only for her best friend. Twenty weeks away was a long damn time, and they had an insane amount of catching up to do.
Of forgiveness to work through.
And guilt. So much guilt.
Autumn forced a huge smile on her face, and Winter’s smile matched her own.
Autumn faltered, though, a gasp coming close to escaping her lips when she took in just how skinny Agent Black was in her shorts and t-shirt. Without her Fed jacket to hide under, Winter appeared bone thin.
Her thigh muscles had all but disappeared, leaving her legs half their old size. Her arms had also decreased in circumference, and her collarbones jutted out beneath the thin, breathable fabric of her workout tee.
It was a shock because five months ago, Winter had been a healthy size, her body always presenting an impression of fitness and strength.
The glossy black hair that Winter’s criminally insane brother had cut short brushed the tops of her shoulders now. No sign of the waxy red streaks Justin had forced upon her remained, but it still made her look so different from the woman from before.
But as Autumn’s stomach began to knot with worry, a bad hairdo was the least of her concerns. Justin Black had committed a long list of atrocities against his sister at the start of the New Year. He’d kidnapped her as part of his escape from Virginia State Hospital, the state’s only maximum-security treatment program, and left a bloody trail of terror in their wake.
Over the course of the three days and two nights that Justin had held Winter captive, he’d heavily drugged his sister, forced her to murder two innocent people, shot her in the arm, and had been minutes, if not seconds, away from blowing her and dozens of others to pieces via a suicide vest.
The physical wounds were bad enough, but Autumn’s apprehension over her friend’s recovery had always centered more on the psychological trauma she’d experienced throughout that harrowing forty-eight hours.
It didn’t end there.
Even after she’d been rescued from that vest, Winter’s every movement had been scrutinized by all of law enforcement and the press for weeks and months.
Paid leave from her job.
The possibility of criminal charges.
Threats of a civil suit from the victims’ families.
Though Winter had been found guiltless for the Stewarts’ deaths, the media had attempted to tear her apart…up until the press changed their minds and turned Winter into a hero. That, more than anything, had been what saved the agent from losing her career.
Staring at Winter’s bony frame now, Autumn couldn’t help but wonder how badly her friend still grappled with the aftermath.
“Ready to do this, Agent Trent?” Winter bounced on the balls of her feet, but her gaze darted around, shifting between the hallway toward the entry door and the awaiting concrete.
Autumn hesitated. Should she call off the run and pull Winter inside for a deeper conversation instead?
What did you expect? She was almost blown up by her brother less than six months ago. Of course she’s still working through the aftermath. If the worst outcome is that she lost some weight, she’s doing great.
Winter stilled her motion, and her smile started to disappear. “Is something wrong, Special Agent Trent?”
Autumn shrugged off her misgivings and flashed her friend a bright grin before bending to tighten her laces. “I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to hearing that.” She’d been Dr. Trent for quite a while now.
“You will. Trust me, you will.” Winter held the door wide-open and bowed, ushering Autumn through the door like royalty. She couldn’t hold the pose for long before they were both cracking up.
See? You worry too much. Winter seems fine. Good, even.
Autumn exited the apartment, and Winter closed the door behind them. They walked toward the sidewalk in a silence that felt comfortable and even more than a little happy.
Reunited, and it feels so good.
Except, now that they were outside, there were other sensations flowing through Autumn that didn’t quite fit into the “good” category. Winter wasn’t just skinny, she was pale. And while pale was a typical description for her friend, Winter’s extreme level of pallid in July in Virginia caused a warning to ping in Autumn’s head.
“So, how the heck was it?” Winter beat her to the first question as they broke into a light jog.
Autumn waved a hand in the air. “A breeze. Add some daily piña colada to that place, and it’s basically just a resort.”
Winter laughed but quickly returned to her timed breathing. “I do seem to remember a beachfront and cabana boys.”
Her reply made Autumn laugh so hard that she stopped to catch her breath. She sure had missed her friend. “Okay. We can’t do this and run. Catch up time after?”
Winter raised her eyebrows dramatically. “What? I’m sorry, did I just hear you say we should exercise first? Did they replace you with an alien? A robot?”
“I’ll have you know,” Autumn straightened to her full height and puffed out her chest, “I enjoy running now. And I’ve even started doing my Krav Maga again.”
Winter propped her hands on her hips, which only enhanced how slim she’d become. “I’m proud of you. Now, put your money where your mouth is and show me just how much you ‘enjoy’ running.”
Without warning, she took off at a sprint. Autumn followed suit.
Ten minutes and a mile and a half later brought them to a city park that Autumn had nicknamed “Turnaround Park.” Instead of the touch, turn, and go method she’d been using since returning home, they opted to sit in the grass and stretch so they could catch up.
“You weren’t kidding. Got a little oomph in that step now, huh, Trent?” Winter stretched a long, thin arm toward her toes.
Autumn massaged her tight calf muscle, staving off any unforgiving leg cramps. “Told you so. Quantico was no joke. I almost understand why Chris was so pissed that I hadn’t gone yet when the rest of you had.”
Special Agent Chris Parker was a fellow member of the Behavioral Analysis Unit and the most vocal voice against Autumn’s streamlined entrance to the FBI. Granted, Chris was vocal about almost everything. Smart as he was, the man seemed to specialize in finding the worst in any given situation.
However, twenty weeks of heavy training and a personal understanding of the obstacles every other agent was forced to hurdle before handling cases had given her insight into Parker’s complaints.
Quantico wasn’t just physically challenging. The mental training and testing were rigorous and exhausting too. From firearms familiarity and marksmanship technique to managing counterterrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and criminal investigations, enormous amounts of information and skills had been crammed into Autumn’s brain in a short period of time.
She was much better equipped for the high-stakes cases she’d been privileged to assist with pre-Quantico. Training had provided a framework that would help guide her through difficult on-the-job decisions, taking some of the burden off her overactive heart.
Special Agent Trent was a bit tougher than Dr. Trent. Autumn had sensed the change in herself over the course of her training and tried to embrace the alterations.
Nothing would ever silence her heart. She knew that, and so did anyone familiar with her personality. The tools she’d acquired to temper her emotions were sure to be advantageous in the field, though.
“Parker has issues. I wouldn’t give anything he’s said to you in the past much thought.” Winter’s expression hardened. “Chris is concerned with Chris. Not the team. Not the FBI. He lives in Parkerland, and he likes it there.”
Her friend’s tight jaw and distant stare made Autumn wonder if Winter had been on the receiving end of any of Chris’s biting commentary over the last few months. Or worse, if Winter had been made privy to the fact that Chris had pushed the idea—hard—that she’d willingly gone with Justin. Helped her brother break out. Murdered civilians of her own free will.
“I can’t argue with that.” Now that the sun was higher in the sky, the hollows beneath her friend’s cheekbones and the dark crevices under her brilliant blue eyes were more evident. “How are you holding up?”
Winter visibly tensed and continued to direct her gaze toward the treetops. “I’m okay. Cyber found the full video of the Stewart murders pretty damn quick. Leave it to Justin to feel the need to post the entire horror show on the dark web. He really wasn’t joking about snuff films being his bread and butter.”
The clips of videos that Justin had emailed to the press during Winter’s captivity had only shown Agent Black breaking the necks of Greg and Andrea Stewart, along with a shot of their deceased teenager lying on the floor of a blood-splattered RV. There had been no audio, and the footage had sent the media into a frenzy. Reporters instantly pushed the narrative that Winter had partnered up with her serial killer brother.
The truth became clearer when Justin strapped her with explosives and left her stranded in downtown Washington, D.C., in the middle of a crowd of thousands there to attend a vigil. She wasn’t his accomplice, but she’d nearly been his firework display show.
That evidence coupled with the unedited video feed of what actually happened to the Stewarts—Justin forced Winter to kill the parents in order to save their two young children—had kept Winter clear from murder charges. However, Autumn was sure that nothing would protect her friend from the self-deprecation that followed taking the lives of two innocent human beings, even if she’d done it to save them from the torture Justin would have put them through had she resisted.
To make matters worse, Justin had killed one of the children anyway. He shot Nicole Stewart in the head right there in the RV, despite leading Winter to believe she could save the thirteen-year-old.
The younger sibling, Timothy Stewart, was still missing. Justin had abducted the eight-year-old, the two of them seeming to disappear into thin air.
Without a doubt, Winter felt responsible for failing to save Timothy from her disturbed brother, as well as for her inability to prevent Nicole’s death. Not that any of that was her fault. Her brother had kept his older sister a prisoner by use of physical restraints, drugs, and emotional duress.
“Your name would have been cleared one way or the other, Winter. You’re a good agent. A good person.” Autumn ached for her friend. The position she’d been shoved into by her brother was impossible.
“Hey,” Winter lifted a shoulder, “at least I got a vacation out of the mess. The leave of absence they stuck me with during the official Bureau investigation was more than enough time for my arm to recover.” She tapped her bicep in the spot Justin had shot her. “And Osbourne’s had me doing desk work ever since to make sure I was ‘fully rested and able to return to the field.’ Good as new and ready to get the hell back out there.”
Max Osbourne was the Special Agent in Charge of the Richmond Violent Crimes Task Force and Winter’s technical boss. If SAC Osbourne wanted her at a desk, she’d be at a desk. But Autumn wondered if Supervisory Special Agent Aiden Parrish hadn’t also had a hand in extending Winter’s recovery period so long.
Autumn trusted Aiden. If he thought Winter wasn’t ready for action, he almost certainly had damn good reason to believe so. What had Aiden witnessed in Winter all these months while Autumn was away? The physical changes were obvious and concerning enough by themselves.
“You’re sure you’re ready?” Autumn attempted to mask the gravity of her apprehension. Her friend didn’t appear to be sleeping or even eating properly.
Winter met her gaze, a touch of fragility showing in her eyes for the first time that day. “How is anyone ever ready to do anything after an experience like that? I mean, I’ve gone through all the psych panels. I’ve checked every box required to prove my competency. You know, after proving my innocence.” She laughed, but the harsh sound was mirthless.
“You had nothing to prove there, Winter. You were innocent. You are innocent.” Autumn wanted to hug her friend but hesitated, unsure if Winter would feel violated by her touch.
A hug from Autumn Trent wasn’t just a hug. Not since she was ten years old and her abusive drunk of a father caused her a traumatic brain injury with a blow to the skull on a table corner. Emergency brain surgery had been required to save her, and she’d awoken with a startling new “ability” of sorts. The simple touch of her finger to another person’s skin sent currents of their emotions streaming through Autumn’s core.
Winter was aware of the “sixth sense” that Autumn possessed and would therefore understand that an embrace would reveal her emotional cards. All of them.
Autumn wasn’t sure such an intrusion was welcome quite yet.
“Innocence is relative to viewpoint.” Winter’s throat bobbed as she swallowed. “I’m a federal agent who killed two good people. The Stewarts were a nice family. Greg and Andrea were the kind of parents any kid would be lucky to have. They helped Justin and me out for no reason at all other than just blindly caring for two strangers’ welfare.”
Agent Black’s head jerked around to glance over her shoulder as though a bee had stung her. She turned back a few seconds later like nothing had happened. The movement seemed sporadic at best, but Autumn brushed it off. They were sitting in the grass on a hot July morning in Virginia. Bugs were everywhere.
“Their innocence doesn’t cancel out yours.” Autumn could barely contain the urge to clutch Winter close. She’d known her friend would struggle to forgive herself, but witnessing the raw truth right before her eyes was heart-wrenching.
Winter pulled her knees to her chest and rested her forehead on them. “Maybe I shouldn’t even be an agent anymore. Being ‘cleared’ doesn’t change anything. The guilt…the guilt is just eating away at my insides. I don’t know how to make that stop. I’m not sure I deserve for that to ever stop.” Her hands shook as she plowed her fingers through her silky black hair.
Stress. It’s the stress. That’s why she’s so thin and pale and shaky. She’s overwhelmed.
Each successive time Autumn reassured herself that her friend was okay, she believed it a little less. “Anyone who went through what you did would struggle not to blame themselves. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your entire career. You have to allow yourself more time.”
“I made a list,” Winter raised her head, folded her arms across her knees, and placed her chin on them, “of what I would do if I weren’t an agent. Private investigator was number one. I thought about that before this ever happened. I’d be a good PI.” She nodded, as if to convince herself.
“You’d be an amazing PI. You’d be an amazing at a lot of other things too. But it’s too soon to throw in the towel, Winter. I really believe that.” Five months wasn’t close to long enough to process the ordeal that Winter had experienced.
Winter lowered her hand and ripped up a few blades of grass, mindlessly twisting them in her fingers. “Time doesn’t even feel real anymore. There’s no future date when this will just…go away. I know what you’re saying. It’ll get easier, but easier isn’t enough. I want to feel free again. I want to feel the way I did before Justin took me that night.”
A few tears spilled onto her cheeks, and Autumn’s heart twisted. In a flash, she grabbed Winter and pulled her into a firm embrace. Beneath her hands, her friend was even frailer than she appeared. Her shoulder blades protruded like wings from her back.
The torrent of emotions hit next, flooding Autumn with tsunami force. Noxious waves of confusion, anger, and guilt rushed into her body. The pain flowing from her friend was beyond sadness…beyond regret. Winter was drenched in despair.
While struggling to catch her breath, Autumn sensed another feeling mixed in with the others. Something else…a yearning of some kind. Winter needed…
Winter abruptly pulled away. “Sorry. I know you’re getting an onslaught of crap out of me right now. No reason for both of us to feel this way.” She brushed the tears from her cheeks and stood.
Autumn rose from the grass too, vehemently shaking her head. “That’s not true at all. If you’re hurting, I’m hurting. I’m going to help you through this. As a friend and even as a therapist if you want. I know you already have one, but I’m here for you in all the ways. All of them.”
“You’re a good friend.” Winter was already heading away from the park. “Now, let’s find out if your tough newbie butt can make it back as fast as we got here!” She tapped a button on her watch and took off.
Autumn chased after her. The conversation had gone too far, hit too deep for a casual Monday morning run. Autumn understood the hesitancy, but she also hoped that Winter’s walls weren’t up this high at all times. Part of getting through this tragedy was dependent upon letting the pain out.
Facing the monster, so to speak.
There was no going around that step.
They ran without speaking, their silence only broken by the thudding of their shoes on cement, giving Autumn time to regret her offer to assist with Winter’s therapy. In hindsight, she felt ridiculous. She was one of the reasons Justin Black had escaped and pulled Winter through the depths of hell to begin with.
She could have kept the two Black siblings separate, yet she hadn’t.
That mistake had allowed Justin’s breakout as well as Winter’s traumatization. Furthermore, it didn’t speak highly of Autumn’s abilities. Why on earth would Winter want her as a counselor of any sort?
Guilt weighed heavy on Autumn’s head, making the last part of the jog even harder. When they neared her apartment building, they slowed and walked the last short distance. Both of them were slick with sweat as they reentered her home and began stretching while the quiet continued to hover. Winter stared at her, seemed to debate within herself for a moment, and then opened her mouth to speak—
Buzzing from both their phones broke the silence first.
Autumn grabbed her cell from the coffee table. “Aiden.”
“Me too.” Winter swiped at her screen.
“A briefing…” Autumn began.
Winter checked her watch. “In one hour. Crap. I gotta get home and shower. See you there?” She walked toward the door, wasting no time.
Autumn nodded and waved her goodbye. “See you there.” She tried not to notice how violently Winter’s hand shook as she grabbed for the door handle and let herself out.
Stress. Stress does that to people.
The reassurance wasn’t any more comforting this time around.
Kicking herself into high gear, Autumn headed straight for her own shower. The bathroom mirror reflected her red hair and bright green eyes back to her. Everyone recognized her by now at the field office, whether they were in the BAU or not, but she wanted to appear…extra professional on her first day as an official agent.
Whatever that meant.
Rushing around her apartment and preparing for the day, thoughts of her second first impression were quickly replaced by other much more troubling issues.
Winter was not okay. Not even close. And while Autumn hadn’t expected to return to Richmond and find her best friend completely past the traumatic experience she’d endured, she hadn’t expected to be met with this bony, distressed ghost of Winter Black, either.
Special Agent Noah Dalton, another member of the FBI’s Richmond Violent Crimes Task Force and Winter’s live-in boyfriend, had to be concerned as well. There was no way in hell he was okay with his girlfriend’s current state.
She’d find a way to talk to him privately at the office. Aiden too, if possible. They’d have the insight she needed to round out her approach on how to address Winter’s plight.
Everything was going to be okay.
Except for that little boy Justin stole.
She flinched, pausing with one leg in her dress pants and one leg out. Timothy Stewart, assuming he was still alive, was more than likely living a worse nightmare than any of them could ever imagine. Justin wasn’t only a serial killer. He’d been raised by a serial killer. His blood relative, Douglas Kilroy. The Preacher.
Kilroy had kidnapped Justin one night when he was only six, murdering the little boy’s and Winter’s parents on his way out. He’d intended to kill thirteen-year-old Winter too, but the bash on her head hadn’t finished the job. Just like Autumn, Winter had woken up from emergency brain surgery with an odd new ability.
Their unusual sixth senses were one of the major bonds between Autumn and Winter. No one else could fully understand the blessing and the curse of such “gifts.”
Autumn finished pulling on her pants and buttoned them, remembering how she and Winter had also bonded over their stories of sibling loss. Like Winter, Autumn had a sibling she’d been parted from suddenly. After her parents were deemed unfit to keep children in their custody, her little sister, Sarah, had gone to live with her biological father while Autumn went into the foster care system.
Autumn was determined that some way, somehow, she would find Sarah, in spite of her thwarted efforts up to this point. She would never stop searching.
As she buttoned up her crisp white blouse, her gaze caught on a bright pink sticky note on her dresser.
A.L. Press Charges
An image of the revolting man flashed through her mind, and she tried not to gag.
Just one more thing to take care of. No big deal.
She grabbed a brush to tame her tresses, reminding herself that, like it or not, tending to the Adam Latham matter was her responsibility.
Adam was one of her former bosses at Shadley and Latham, but after he’d assaulted Autumn while “mentoring” her on a case, Mike Shadley had severed all ties with the man. Mike was a good guy, so Autumn had given him time to change his firm’s name before taking legal action.
Now that the name change was official, Autumn was ready to press the assault charges. Not taking action after her boss came on to her in a hotel room and then slapped her for turning him down was doing a disservice to women everywhere.
Men like that had to be exposed.
This week. I’ll call Mike this week and let him know my plans.
Autumn grabbed her purse, planted a kiss on Toad’s nose, and attempted to give pissy Peach a scratch behind the ears. The scratch was denied, but Autumn had expected as much. She was nearly out the door before she remembered to feed her little creatures first.
She filled water bowls, poured kibble, and dished out salmon pâté with impressive speed. At the rate Toad and Peach were eating, she’d have felt like a complete jerk forgetting to feed their hungry little mouths.
Recognition struck after she stepped out of the apartment and secured the front door.
Hungry. That’s the word I was searching for earlier.
Autumn stood on the porch without moving. The thought had come from nowhere, but she was able to connect the wires immediately.
Before Agent Black had pulled away from Autumn’s hug in the park, she’d intuited that Winter longed for something. But now, Autumn understood the need was more of a hunger sensation. Something Winter yearned for so badly that it was consuming her.
There were so many things that Winter might want, but remembering the way she’d teared up at the park and said, “I want to feel free again. I want to feel the way I did before Justin took me that night,” struck Autumn as monumental.
More than anything, Autumn was certain that bruised and broken Winter Black wanted redemption.
She strode toward her car, determined she would help Winter find just that. Her dear friend didn’t have to fight alone. Autumn would—
“What in the…”
Autumn’s jaw dropped. She stopped in front of her car before circling it slowly. All four tires were slashed, and the sides were keyed. But the hood…
She squinted against the sunlight and read the inscription scratched into the metal with complete bafflement.
“Your Greatest Fan.”
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