A Taste of... Cold Trail
Luke Harrison flipped the page of The Backwoodsman magazine and scrunched lower in the back seat of the beat-up Toyota Corolla to avoid the torn spot in the cushion near the top. He hated that spot. He hated the way the stiff, uneven fabric scraped his bare neck.
His mom yelled at him all the time to quit fussing over the seat, but she didn’t understand. The scratchy feeling didn’t just stay on his neck. It spread all over, not stopping until it felt like the bumpy material was rubbing every inch of his body at once.
The other seat was even worse, with stuffing puffing out of the long gash. The white stuff had yellowed and then turned so brown and nasty that he couldn’t bear to look at it. If he’d been forced to touch it, he thought he might go mad.
Luke gazed longingly at the empty spot in the front. The passenger seat didn’t have any rips or cracks, but his mom said she couldn’t focus on driving when he sat next to her. That left slouching into the back seat as his only option.
Ripped spot avoided, Luke returned to the article, immersing himself in the latest technology on how to purify water without a purification system. Luke had read five other articles on this same topic just that week. He liked learning about anything that had to do with surviving in the wild. He never got bored of the subject, not even when he read about the same topic over and over again.
The driver of the silver van on their left blasted his horn, and the sound was like a physical assault. Luke didn’t like loud noises. They made him too hot, like his ears were on fire.
“Watch where you’re going, asshole!”
At his mom’s scream, Luke scrunched even lower in the seat, keeping his eyes firmly on the page, focusing on the bright orange leaf of a tree. He wished he was there right then. The forest looked so pretty, and he wished he could blink and disappear from here to there. He’d camp and build a fire in which to cook the fish he’d catch for his dinner. He’d purify his water and live on the land.
The woods were quiet. No cars. No horns. No constant hum of voices from the TV.
No yelling mothers would ever be allowed at his camp. No bad words, either.
He’d sing the songs that wrote themselves in his head to the rhythm of the stream flowing not far away. He’d make instruments from the trees and learn to play them while crickets and frogs joined along.
My feet are in my shoes…my toes wiggling all around…
His mom yelled again, but Luke tried to close his ears to the sound as he focused on the leaf and the song in his head. He also forced his hands to remain still. Mom didn’t like it when he flapped his hands, even though it always made him feel better.
Nothing had been making him feel better lately, not since she got that one phone call a few days ago.
She’d cried at first, then she pulled one of the brown bottles from the top shelf. She drank straight from the bottle, which made her too busy to cry. For a while. When the bottle was empty, though, she ended up crying even louder, this time banging cabinets in the kitchen. She’d even thrown a plate at the floor. On purpose.
If Luke broke a glass on accident, he got in big trouble. He guessed that rule didn’t apply to adults. Stupid, if you asked him.
The shattering noise of the plate breaking into little pieces combined with his mom’s sobbing had made Luke remember the time he’d tripped onto a fire ant hill. Her crying and screaming and banging had felt the same.
When the pain turned overwhelming, Luke had yelled at his mom. “Stop-stop-stop.”
She’d slapped him hard across the face and cried even harder, which only made the awful stinging itch more painful.
She yelled so much more since Aaron left. Luke hated all the yelling, but the constant crying since the phone call was worse. His mom had even stopped showering and cooking or going to the grocery store. All Luke could find to eat this morning was a piece of bread. The last slice, and a butt at that. He didn’t like the butts, but his stomach growled so much that he ate it anyway.
When he asked his mom about lunch, she’d smacked him across the face so hard his cheek stung. Then she’d started crying again.
Don’t think about that. Think about nice things that make all the hurting go away.
Luke refocused on the article, managing another paragraph before a little gasp from the front seat dampened his palms.
Oh no. Not again.
He read faster, trying to block out his surroundings. That never worked, though. Not without his headphones. Mom told him they didn’t have money for a new pair when his last ones broke.
Her cries were soft at first, then grew louder and louder. The sound upset him, so Luke jerked up in the seat. The jagged strip of fabric clawed at his neck.
Flames began to burn the world around him. Brighter. Hotter.
Stop, stop, stop!
He wanted to flap his hands so badly, to lose himself in the soothing movement, but that only made his mom cry harder. Or yell. So, Luke did the next best thing and stroked his watch band. The smooth material beneath his fingertips helped a little, so he kept rubbing it. Again and again, until his body stopped stinging inside and out.
His mom’s sobs continued, and the car drifted to the right. Bump! Luke bounced in the seat as the front tire veered onto the shoulder. His mom yanked the steering wheel, jerking the car back into their lane.
Luke stared at the back of his mom’s head and wished he knew what to say to make her happy again. He wasn’t so good with words, though. Somehow, he always managed to say the wrong thing. Which was usually whatever thing was in Luke’s mind at the time. His teachers said he was missing a filter. Like the white paper cup that Aaron used to pour coffee grounds in to make coffee.
Apparently, there were rules about when you could share your thoughts and why. Luke liked rules, but he didn’t understand these rules. No one had ever explained them to him or why they were important. He just knew that all his teachers told him that he didn’t need to share every one of his thoughts.
Like the time in second grade when Sally Meyers asked him if he thought her horse drawing was any good. Luke had taken one look at the stick figure picture with bulging eyes and no ears and told the truth. “No. That doesn’t look like a horse at all.”
Instead of appreciating his honesty, Sally had cried to Mrs. Wilkins, and Luke had gotten in trouble for being mean.
He hadn’t wanted to be mean. Just honest. But even at twelve, Luke was starting to realize that, to a lot of people, honesty was the same thing as unkind. That didn’t make sense to him. Why would someone want you to lie to them? But then, most people didn’t make sense to Luke. And they didn’t understand him.
Except for Aaron.
If Aaron was here, Luke could talk to him. Aaron always knew what to do. But his stepdad was stationed in Iraq, doing important things to help their country.
That left him with Jimmy Hoffa.
“Hey, Jimmy Hoffa. Did you know that if you’re camping, you can purify water even without iodine tablets or chlorine tablets or a filter?”
Luke paused, even though he understood Jimmy Hoffa couldn’t reply. He wasn’t stupid. Jimmy Hoffa was his imaginary friend. Imaginary meant not real. In Luke’s experience, real people got mad when he talked too much about camping. Luke didn’t know why. He loved camping and learning how to survive in the wild, and anything related to living outdoors.
That was why Jimmy Hoffa was so great. No matter how long Luke talked, Jimmy Hoffa listened. Without rolling his eyes at Luke or making fun of him like the kids at school did.
“You can purify water with fire. First, you have to find water from the cleanest source possible. The higher up in the mountains you are, the cleaner the water will be. And moving water, like a stream, is better than still water. Once you find water, you have to build a really hot fire, and then you fill a metal pot halfway. Only halfway, because if you fill the pot too full, it can boil over onto your fire. That’s bad because water on your fire makes the temperature less hot, and your water might stop boiling, and then you have to start all over again.”
Jimmy Hoffa pointed at Luke’s watch. He didn’t talk much, but that was okay. Luke talked enough for both of them.
Luke nodded. “Good question. It takes ten minutes total to purify the water, but you only boil it for five. When that whole five minutes is up, you take the pot off the fire and set it somewhere safe to cool. Once it’s cool enough not to burn your mouth, you can drink it. You can also drink rainwater if you’re camping, but that’s not purifying water because it’s already clean enough to drink. You just have to set up a container to collect the rain in.”
“Jesus, Lucas Richard Harrison, can you shut up already?” Mom’s words were their own kind of slap. “No wonder you don’t have any friends. No one gives two shits about how to purify water. And how many times have I told you to quit talking to your imaginary friend? It’s creepy.”
His mom made that scrunched up face at him in the rearview mirror, and though he could only see her eyes right then, he knew her lip was curled up too. Almost like a dog snarl.
Luke’s fingers returned to the watch band. “Jimmy Hoffa likes camping too.”
So did Aaron. Aaron was the one who’d given Luke the special watch. The coolest watch ever. It had a compass, and a fire starter, and even a little multi-tool. He’d even had Luke’s name engraved on the inside.
“How the hell would you know what Jimmy Hoffa likes? He’s been dead for years.”
That painful prickling sensation returned, like the fire ants were biting him again. Luke stroked the watch with more force. “Jimmy Hoffa is my friend.”
His mom made a noise deep in her throat, just like she did when she got snot caught there and had to hack it out. “If I’d known the drugs I took when I was pregnant would give you such a weak mind, I never would have touched them. And that goes double for your real father, the piece of shit. That rat didn’t even stick around long enough for me to see the two pink lines on the pregnancy test. God!”
She slammed her hands on the steering wheel, making the car jerk.
Luke rubbed his fingers over the watch band again. What had he done wrong this time? Why did his mom care if he talked to Jimmy Hoffa or that he liked talking about camping? Lately, she’d been upset all the time. Ever since that stupid phone call.
Not that things had been great before then, but Luke would take the late-night dancing to loud music after too much wine any day over this. The music was better than the screaming or crying.
And everything had been better before Aaron left.
Luke sighed. He hadn’t needed Jimmy Hoffa much then. Not when Aaron was around. Aaron was the person who’d taught Luke about camping. About how to set up a tent, catch and clean a fish, build a fire, make a mat out of branches, and so much more.
Once Aaron got back from overseas, he’d take Luke camping again. And his mom would stop crying.
Luke brightened. Mrs. Hawkins, his teacher last year, had told the class that focusing on the good in life helped people to feel happier. Maybe all his mom needed was a reminder.
“Remember when Aaron was here all the time? That was nice. When is he coming home?”
His mom sucked in a loud breath but didn’t answer. Instead, she swerved the car into a gas station and pulled up in front of the little store. Luke liked the little stores. They almost always had Slurpee machines. Luke liked cherry Slurpees best, and then cola ones. The other kinds were gross and made him gag.
But he only liked them when the cup wasn’t filled all the way to the top so that it wouldn’t leak over the lid, because Slurpees were sticky, and sticky things on his skin made Luke feel almost as bad as the time his mom and Aaron tried to take him to a concert where the outdoor arena was so loud and crowded that Luke had felt like he was under attack.
“Stay put.” His mom slammed the car door and entered the store before Luke could protest.
“I’m thirsty,” Luke said to her retreating back on the far side of the glass. “I want to go inside too.”
In the seat next to him, Jimmy Hoffa shook his head. Don’t go in. Something’s wrong.
Luke wanted to argue, but he sensed the wrongness too. An itch crawled over his neck, so he turned back to the article on water purification and began rereading from the beginning. The familiar information soothed him, like wrapping him in his favorite blanket. The furry one Aaron gave him, not the itchy old blanket his mom had picked up at a flea market.
Camping made sense. Tools made sense. Luke found things that followed rules to be calming.
The front door opened, and the car rocked as his mother climbed into the driver’s seat. She pulled a cherry cola out of a plastic sack and popped the top.
Luke perked up. Not as good as a cherry Slurpee, but he liked cherry anything. He leaned forward and reached for the can, but she whisked it away.
“Hold your horses.”
Luke frowned. His mom said that expression enough that he knew what she meant, but he still thought it was silly. He didn’t have any horses.
She moved the can to where he couldn’t see it and dug through the purse sitting on her lap. He played with his watch and waited…waited…waited…
“Here you go.”
Luke grabbed the cold can from his mom’s hand before she could change her mind and guzzled two giant gulps, enjoying the way the syrupy sweetness fizzed down his throat.
“Make sure you drink every drop.”
He paused with the can halfway to his lips. That was weird. His mom never said that about soda.
Even as he stared at her in surprise, she did something even weirder…she smiled at him. He froze. It was the first smile she’d given Luke in a long time. Then he remembered. Luke had reminded her of a good thing in their life—Aaron. His old teacher’s advice had worked!
Luke smiled back and drank a few more sips.
His mom drove them back to the highway while Luke sipped his drink and went back to reading about camping. Before long, the words started to blur, and his eyelids grew heavy. They were drifting shut when the car jerked to a stop.
Luke blinked and looked up and around, trying to focus his blurry gaze on his surroundings. They were parked outside a plain beige building he’d never seen before. After shutting off the engine, his mom twisted in her seat. She grabbed the soda from the drink holder and shook the can, sending the remaining liquid sloshing against the metal.
“I thought I told you to finish the whole thing. Can’t you do anything right?”
Her cheeks flushed bright red, and her eyes turned scary. Luke dropped his gaze to his lap. He didn’t like the itchy sensation of looking people in the eye anyway, but he especially disliked it when his mom’s pupils changed to tiny black dots. That was when she got the meanest.
Luke realized he might be different than other kids, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew that his mom took drugs.
She slammed the can back into the plastic holder and started swearing, beating the steering wheel with her fists and calling Luke names before finally calming down.
Luke curled up, waiting for the fire ants to strike. But they didn’t. Instead of the burning, his body felt like…almost like he could float away.
“At least I’m almost done with you.”
This time, when she turned to Luke, her face was different. She reminded Luke of a monster. Which was weird enough that Luke shivered.
Something’s very wrong, Jimmy Hoffa whispered. Run.
Luke trusted Jimmy Hoffa and reached for the door handle. Or tried to. Though his inside voice told his arm to move, it didn’t. It felt too heavy to lift. Except that didn’t make any sense. He lifted his arms all the time.
He shook his head, and the car spun. That’s bad, right?
Very bad, Jimmy Hoffa agreed. Run, Luke. Now.
Luke gritted his teeth and reached for the door again. His arm only twitched in response.
Pressure built inside Luke, the same way it did when he was stuck in a small room with too many people talking at once. He was trapped. He hated feeling trapped.
“I want Aaron. When is Aaron coming home?”
His mom climbed between the space in the front seats, not stopping until she was beside him. Her face still like a monster, she grabbed his cheeks with her hands. “Never.” She shook him. “You hear me, you worthless little brat? Aaron is never coming back.”
Before Luke could ask the question or beg her to stop touching him, his mom’s hand whipped out and covered his mouth and nose.
Luke didn’t know that a monster could become even more monsterish, but he knew now.
Her hand pressed harder. “And neither are you.”
Charleston Cold Case Detective Ellie Kline slid another discrete glance at her phone while the animated discussion of which Swiss chateau was the best for an intimate spring getaway raged on around her.
The numbers blinked up at her without mercy. Eleven twenty-nine in the evening. Fourteen whole minutes had passed since the last time she’d checked the time.
With a sigh, Ellie slipped her phone back into the black satin Gucci clutch—a gift from her mother—and pasted a smile on her face, in case her mom was watching her now. Helen Kline’s high society parties had never been Ellie’s favorite, even before she’d shocked her parents by announcing she planned to become a cop.
This particular party, hosted within the walls of her mom and dad’s elegant Charleston mansion, was no different. The expansive living room where Ellie grew up was oozing with men in tuxedos and expensive dark suits while women draped themselves in diamonds and gemstones. Most of the latter group wore shimmering dresses to match, with their hair twisted into chic updos or falling in perfect waves around their shoulders from a fresh salon blowout. A far cry from Ellie’s untamed mane, which exploded around her face in a riot of red, untamed curls. Her default look when she couldn’t be bothered to style it.
Ellie glanced down at her sleeveless black sheath and silver heels—the first items she’d pulled from her closet—and mentally shrugged. At least she was here in an outfit more suitable than the fleece pajamas she’d rather be wearing.
In her own home.
While she tried to hunt down the madman who appeared to be more ghost than human.
Don’t think about him.
Mentally berating herself for letting her thoughts return to the evasive Lawrence Kingsley, Ellie swirled the champagne in the flute she’d been carrying around like a prop since arriving. The amber liquid looked about as flat as she felt, the optimism she’d mustered for the Christmas holidays having faded over the past week.
If today wasn’t New Year’s Eve, Ellie would have made her excuses and stayed home. In deference to the holiday, she’d stick it out for another half hour and make her escape once the clock struck midnight.
“Oh, we donated one-hundred thousand to that group this year.” A middle-aged brunette preened while the other women gasped and complimented the large number. She waved a it was nothing hand. “We needed the tax write-off. I swear, that husband of mine spends more time looking for tax write-offs and shelters than he does working.”
Two of the other women chimed in with agreements while a third raised a crystal flute in her manicured hand. “And amen to that, unless you ladies want your hard-earned money to go to Uncle Sam while you’re forced to start shopping at the mall.”
“Eww!” The other three women said it at the same time before all of them broke into peals of laughter.
Ellie scowled. Eww was right. Just not for the reason they thought.
Before she said something her mom would regret, Ellie pivoted and stalked her way through the people to a less-crowded spot by the archway that led into the dining room.
She probably looked like a wallflower, but she didn’t care.
Helen Kline had outdone herself with the decorations, so Ellie distracted herself with those. Strategically placed garlands draped along the arches and over doors while fairy lights twinkled throughout the rooms and outside. The air held the combined scent of cinnamon-spice and the delicacies splayed along the massive dining room table.
Ellie’s favorite were the giant silver and red candles ensconced in glass scattered through the rooms. As if it was bowing its thanks, the candle nearest her flickered like a tiny orange dancer. As Ellie stared, the small flame grew until she was no longer staring at a candle but into a giant wall of fire.
Orange flames licking high at the sky.
The acrid smell of smoke.
Screams coming from the car trapped on the other side until they died off.
Choking on the reek of burnt hair while clawing at the dirt until her fingernails bled.
Ellie dug her nails into her palms, utilizing the sting to yank herself back from the nightmare scene. She’d been half out of her mind that night. So desperate to smother the flames and rescue the man trapped in the trunk that she’d kept digging at the dirt long past the point of hopelessness.
Afterward, her guilt over the sight of the burned remains assembled on the autopsy table had almost overwhelmed her. Ellie remembered her fervent, desperate pleas to the universe for the bones to belong to someone else. She’d clung to that hope, right up until the dental records confirmed the dead man’s identity, leaving no room for doubt.
The poor soul screaming in fear and agony from behind a wall of flames had belonged to Gabe Fisher.
And now he was dead. Burned to death. One more victim of the monster known as Dr. Kingsley.
Despite the crush of people and the thermostat her mom set at a comfortable seventy-two, a chill streaked across Ellie’s bare arms. She distracted herself by people-watching, but that only soured her mood even more.
Look at them.
Dressed in ensembles that cost thousands of dollars, enjoying a spread of alcohol and food that cost even more. Pretending to be here because of their altruism, but really, they were only in attendance to flaunt their wealth and rub elbows with others in their income bracket while simultaneously discussing tax shelters.
“Hey, you okay? What’s wrong?”
Ellie started at the light touch on her shoulder. Her coworker, roommate, and best friend frowned up at her, still diminutive next to Ellie despite her gravity-defying red heels. Unlike Ellie, Jillian Reed had spent time on her appearance. A red halter dress made the most of her friend’s curves, and the mass of soft blonde curls piled on top of her head flattered her gamine face.
Jacob Garcia didn’t say anything, but she knew her ex-partner well enough to read the concern in his furrowed brow as he studied her over a pint of beer.
Ellie sipped from her glass and then pulled a face at the tepid, bubble-free liquid. “I’m fine. Nothing’s wrong. Nothing new, anyway.”
Jillian and Jacob did that couple’s trick where they read each other’s minds just by exchanging a glance.
Jillian squeezed Ellie’s arm. “Gabe?”
The sound of his name pierced through her like a knife, and she didn’t even try to deny it. “Yeah.”
Ellie didn’t need to explain. Besides being her best friends, Jillian and Jacob both worked with her at the Charleston Police Department. They knew all about Gabe Fisher, the young man who’d once worked as Dr. Kingsley’s assistant until he risked his life to save Jillian from his sadistic boss.
When Gabe had entered the federal witness security program known as WITSEC, Ellie had been happy for him to get a fresh start. That happiness hadn’t lasted long.
Defying all odds, Kingsley had somehow managed to track him down. After sending him a dead bird in the mail, the once renowned psychiatrist had kidnapped Gabe and whisked him off to a warehouse where he’d tortured him on camera.
Ellie clenched the flute tight. So close. With the help of Gabe’s federal marshal and others, they’d tracked Kingsley’s hideaway down and rushed a federal SWAT team there to save him.
Except Kingsley had outsmarted them again, disappearing with Gabe minutes before they arrived.
Just a few miles from where she’d come so close to finding them, he’d burned Gabe to death in a car he abandoned on the side of the road.
Gabe’s screams were cut off by Jillian’s soft voice. “That’s understandable, but it’s New Year’s Eve.” Jillian clinked her champagne glass against the one still in Ellie’s hand. “You’re allowed to spend quality time with your family and not think about anything, especially work, for a little bit.”
Ellie snorted and looked around to make sure the sound hadn’t offended one of her mother’s guests’ sensitive ears. “Quality time with my family plus two hundred of their wealthiest friends, you mean.”
Jillian pressed a dainty hand to her chest. “Why, Eleanor Elizabeth Francis Kline, are you turning into a reverse snob?”
Ellie’s lips twitched at her friend’s antics, making her love her even more. “Maybe, but don’t tell my parents, okay? Winning Helen over to the idea of me being a cop was tough enough. She might disown me over this.” The weight resettled across her shoulders. “Seriously, though, why am I here, hanging out with these people,” she waved her hand at the crowd, “while Kingsley is still at large, undoubtedly plotting his next kill?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Jillian gave her a look that rivaled her mother’s. “Maybe because it’s not healthy to hang out at home or work all day and think about murderers?”
When Ellie turned to Jacob for support, he shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I’m just here to act as arm candy.”
Jillian rolled her eyes before leaning in to give him a peck on the cheek.
Ellie faked gagged. “Ah, so sweet.”
As her friends laughed, a tall, attractive man wearing an exquisite black suit materialized to Ellie’s right. She felt him before she noticed his approach.
“Ellie, fancy seeing you here.” The blond man winked, triggering a rush of nostalgic warmth in Ellie’s chest.
“Nick. Nice to see you.”
Nick Greene looked good. Not that Ellie’s ex-boyfriend ever looked bad, but there was a new quality to him that she couldn’t quite put her finger on, one that injected an extra sparkle into his already handsome face.
Jillian exchanged a quick greeting with Nick before wiggling her fingers at Ellie. “I’m dragging Jacob to the dance floor now. See you in a bit.”
Jacob yelped, his dark eyes wide. “Wait, you’re doing what? Arm candy, remember?”
Ellie and Nick waited until Jillian tugged her reluctant partner out of sight before facing each other. When Ellie gazed into his eyes, she steeled herself for an onslaught of pain over their breakup, or at the very least, regret.
To her surprise, neither emotion surfaced, and she found herself grinning in response to his larger than life smile.
“I’d ask what you’ve been up to lately, but I think I can guess. Still chasing bad guys and making the world a safer place?”
Ellie stiffened. Was that a dig?
After studying his expression and discovering nothing but warmth, she relaxed. “Lots of the first part, not enough of the second. What about you? What are you working on these days? It’s been a while since I’ve seen you around.”
His lips curved into a smile, a once-familiar sight that pierced her heart. The pang she felt wasn’t over their breakup, though. It was over the loss of Nick as a friend. It was hard not to mourn the man she’d counted on for years.
For so long, the pair of them had been attached at the hip, serving as each other’s plus-one to everything from galas to family events. On paper, they’d made perfect sense as a couple. Their parents moved in the same social circles. They knew all the same people.
For a long time, nothing had thrilled the hard-to-impress Helen Kline more than the notion of a Kline-Greene wedding.
Even Ellie started believing she and her lifelong friend had a real shot. Until her career came between them.
“Still not paying attention to your mom’s events, I see. Some things never change.”
Ellie wrinkled her nose, baffled. What did her mom’s events have to do with him? “I’m sorry?”
He grinned and tugged at one of her stray curls. “This,” he swept his arm to encompass the partygoers, “is what I’ve been doing. Well, sort of. The part I’m actually doing is building low-income retirement housing. That’s what this fundraiser is for, to raise money for my project. Which you’d know if you ever read the invitations your mom sent you closely. Or at all.”
Valid point, but whatever. Ellie was far more interested in his project. She reached out and clasped his hand. “That’s so wonderful, Nick. Really. Thank you for helping our community. Can you tell me more?”
His cheeks flushed pink at her compliment. “You’re too kind, and I predict that you’re going to regret asking me that in a few minutes. There’s nothing I like to talk about more.”
True to his word, Nick dove right into an animated discussion of his project. As he filled Ellie in on the details of his nonprofit venture, she experienced a bittersweet pang beneath her ribs.
Nick truly was one of the good ones. If only she had been able to love him the way everyone told her she should. Ellie had cared about him a great deal. Just not in the way that he deserved to be loved.
Once Nick realized that she never would, he’d broken up with her. Ellie’s heart hurt at the time, but even then, she’d realized his decision was for the best. Nick could never figure out why her job was so important to her.
Unlike Special Agent Clay Lockwood.
Ellie’s mind drifted to the dedicated, soft-spoken FBI agent who understood Ellie on a level that Nick, in his charmed life, would never be able to touch. Both she and Clay had demons in their past that drew them to police work in the first place. Ellie never had to pretend to be someone else around Clay or make excuses for who she was.
Still, things between Ellie and Clay were…complicated. She traced the rim of her crystal glass and pretended to listen to Nick talk about the land he was buying.
Where was Clay tonight? Out with friends? Or was he doing what Ellie wished she were doing…sitting at home, figuring out how to reel Kingsley in, once and for all. Or were his thoughts wound up in all those missing kid cases they’d uncovered on their recent trip to Florida?
The specifics of the few files they’d read still haunted Ellie…but not nearly as much as she bet Clay’s missing sister haunted him. Caraleigh.
“Uh oh, I know that look.” Nick’s hand waved in front of her face. “You’re thinking of all the people you might be helping if only you weren’t stuck at this dreadful party.”
Ellie blinked up into Nick’s amused eyes and blushed. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been distracted lately. Don’t be mad, please?”
He shook his head. “I’m not mad. That’s why we broke up, so I wouldn’t have to be mad at your work anymore.” Nick softened the words with a smile, easing Ellie’s discomfort.
“Right. Good call on your part, I might add.” She saluted him with her sad drink before taking a gulp. She grimaced at the taste. Nope. Not any better this time around.
Nick slid his hands into his pockets and tilted his head, gestures that Ellie knew meant he had an uncomfortable observation to share.
Uh oh. She eyed him warily over her crystal flute.
“Look, I know we don’t talk as much anymore, but I…would you like some friendly advice?”
Was there a tactful way to say no to that question? If so, Ellie had never learned the trick. She squared her shoulders and summoned a wan smile.
“Friendly sure sounds better than unfriendly advice.” She winced at the forced cheerfulness in her voice, took a deep breath, and tried again. “I mean, of course. Who better to give me advice than the person who was my best friend for so many years?” She touched his arm. “We’re still friends, aren’t we?”
Nick glanced at where her fingers rested on his suit, pale against the black fabric, before covering them with his own and giving a quick squeeze. “We are. Always.”
Relief whooshed through her veins. A second passed, then two, before they both disentangled their hands at the same time.
Ellie stepped back. “So, about that friendly advice?”
“Right. I was just going to say that doing meaningful work is very fulfilling. So is helping people. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t work.” He speared her with a knowing look. “You need balance, Ellie. At the end of the day, if you do nothing but pour your time and energy and heart into your work, you’ll burn out.”
The observation caught Ellie off guard, like a car sideswiping her on the highway. Hadn’t she just gotten a variation of this same lecture from Jillian?
She didn’t recover in time to form a coherent response because a dark-haired woman sidled up to Nick and curled red-tipped fingers around his shoulder. The newcomer flashed Ellie a perfect, white-toothed grin before turning to Nick.
“Sorry to intrude, but the ball is going to drop soon.”
Nick’s entire being lit up as he gazed down into the woman’s upturned face. “We can’t miss that, can we?” He grazed his lips over her cheek and wrapped an arm around her waist.
The pair made a beautiful couple. Far better than she and Nick ever had. The woman looked perfectly at home at the event, the epitome of flirty yet sophisticated in a black dress with a frothy skirt that shimmered in the light from scattered beadwork. Her dark hair was twisted into an elegant style on top of her head, and her skin held the same golden gleam as Nick’s, suggesting that they’d both just returned from the same tropical vacation.
A life that could have been Ellie’s. One that she’d traded for criminals and cold cases.
“Well, it was nice seeing you, Ellie. I hope you have a wonderful year. Oh, and consider what I said, will you?”
Ellie nodded. As the dark-haired beauty led him away, she felt the final nail sink into the coffin of their relationship. Good for Nick. She hoped they’d be happy together.
The noise level in the house ratcheted up as excitement over the impending countdown rose. Ellie weaved her way to the French doors, trading the warmth of her parents’ living room for the fresh air on their patio. This time, her shiver was due to the temperature.
Charleston tended to be mild weather-wise, but on this particular night, the air held a brisk chill. She hugged herself and gazed out across the massive expanse of her parents’ backyard, lit from the glow of the fairy lights twined around the wrought iron railing.
When heels clicked across the patio behind her, Ellie knew without looking who it was. Jillian leaned on the wrought iron railing beside her while Jacob wrapped his arms around his girlfriend’s waist.
Ellie shook her head. “Can you believe this year is almost over?”
“Only if you can believe everything that happened this year.” Jillian cupped her hands to her mouth. “In case anyone out there is listening, I hereby put in my request for a calm, uneventful new year.”
“Your request for an unexciting year is duly noted.”
As a reward for his humor, Jillian jabbed an elbow into Jacob’s ribs. “Not you, doofus. You can give me all the excitement you want. I meant…” She bit her lip and stole a glance at Ellie.
Jacob rubbed his side. “She meant it’d be great if we could catch Kingsley so we aren’t constantly chasing him down and cleaning up his messes. Oh, and maybe a little less Katarina Volkov drama too.”
At the mention of Katarina, Ellie’s teeth clamped together, while at the same time, her heart softened just a little. She waged this internal war, fluctuating between anger and empathy, every time she thought of the woman Kingsley had groomed as both victim and protégé.
“It’s New Year’s Eve, though, so instead of dwelling on that, I’d like to take this moment to thank you both for being such good friends to me during this batshit year. You have no idea how much having friends who understand me and who I can trust makes my life so much better. I won’t lie and say that I don’t worry about Kingsley taking one of you away from me because we all know he’d do it with a song in his heart if he thought he could.”
A chorus of voices erupted from the house, interrupting Ellie and leaving her mind free to flash with images from the past.
There was the girl who sat across from her in Kingsley’s warehouse, back when Ellie was only fifteen. The girl she’d sentenced to death by uttering the phrase, “Die, Bitch! Die.”
Gabe’s pretty face appeared next, making Ellie’s abdomen clench with grief. What might the softhearted man have accomplished with his life had he not gotten tangled up in Kingsley’s web?
The images blinked faster. Clay and his missing sister, Caraleigh. Katarina and the daughter she’d just been reunited with.
“One! Happy New Year!”
Jacob pulled Jillian in for a kiss while noisemakers rattled in the New Year from inside the house. Before Ellie had a chance to feel too awkward, the couple broke apart and flung their arms around her, drawing her into a three-person hug.
“Happy New Year, guys,” Jacob said from within their little circle. “Here’s to a great year for all of us.”
As love and friendship washed over her, Ellie made herself a promise. She wanted to turn the possibility of a great year into reality, which meant one thing.
This would be the year she finally dragged Dr. Lawrence Kingsley to justice.
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