A Taste of... Winter's secret

Chapter One

Horror movies always made Natalie nervous, especially if she watched them late at night. Though she assured herself that the unease wouldn’t follow her home from the theater, a chill flitted down her back as she pushed open the front door to her house.

She paused to turn around and wave to her friend, but when the quiet engine hummed to life, she remembered she was on her own.

Rather than focus on the supernatural scenes that had made the film they’d just seen so unnerving, she tried to mentally take stock of the cinematography and the acting. Sometimes, if she examined a scary movie to admire all its separate parts, she could alleviate the creep of anxiety.

In fact, the friends she’d accompanied to the theater that night had given her the suggestion. They were both horror aficionados, and about once a month, they would pile on her couch to watch movies and eat popcorn and other snacks. Their comments on the plot and characters tended to keep Natalie’s fright at bay while in the comfort of her home. But they’d gone out this time.

And she, nearly thirty years old or not, was now officially spooked.

She rubbed at the goose bumps rising on her arms as the red taillights of the car faded away.

“Stop it,” she scolded herself, firmly shutting the door. She was a married woman, after all. Nearly thirty years old. She no longer believed that monsters hid in her closet.

She didn’t, dammit.

But the thoughts wouldn’t stop. It was probably because they had been in a public theater, and both friends had, rightfully so, remained silent as they ate their popcorn. Natalie could only assume the lack of commentary was the reason for the overwhelming rush of nervousness as she flicked the silver deadbolt into place.

Stepping out of her flats, she retrieved the phone from her back pocket to check for a new message from her husband. Jon’s normal shift extended into the mid to late evening hours, but he was often roped into staying to help the late-night shift supervisor fill out paperwork, take inventory, or any number of responsibilities.

Sure enough, the last message had been received a half-hour before the movie. The message advised her he wouldn’t be home until late that night, but he hadn’t sent a follow-up to estimate a time.

With a sigh, Natalie turned on each light as she made her way out of the foyer and into the kitchen. The fact that her husband, a retail manager, worked longer and more erratic hours than Natalie did as a flight attendant never ceased to amaze her. Chances were good that, by the time Jon returned home from a twelve-hour shift, she would be asleep on the couch, a half-eaten bowl of chips on the coffee table in front of her.

As she reached to open the cabinet where they kept the snacks, she paused. Then she smiled.

No, tonight she didn’t have to eat chips for dinner. Jon had made enough chicken parmesan to feed an army, and they had leftovers that would last well into the apocalypse.

The smile remained as she stepped over to the next cabinet. But as soon as she opened the door and retrieved a plate, the smallest of sounds caught her attention.

It was the sound of someone breathing.

Close.

Right behind her.

Her heart all but leaped into her throat as the icy rush of adrenaline surged through her body, but before she could move or even shout, a sharp sting bloomed at the base of her neck.

It’s just a bee, she thought. But only for a second.

Even as she raised a hand to slap at the source of the pain, darkness enveloped her vision. All the muscles in her body went slack, and she felt the plate slip from her grasp. Just as soon as the ceramic shattered against the floor, she felt herself falling, though she couldn’t be sure she was actually falling. The sensation was dreamlike, almost as if she were suspended in an unfeeling void.

The next thing she felt was her head hitting the floor, then merciful nothingness.

* * *

With a sharp breath, Natalie jerked back to consciousness. Her sleep had been deep and dreamless, and at first, she assumed she had just woken from a nightmare.

She had fallen asleep, at least she thought that must be what happened.

But if she’d only fallen asleep, then where was she now?

The faint scent of must and mildew in the air mingled with another smell she couldn’t place. Iron? Maybe copper? Why would the air in her house smell so musty, and why would it smell like metal?

As she squeezed her eyes closed in an effort to clear her vision, to think, she reached to rub her templesor tried to, at least. The binding around her wrist clinked as something sharp and cold dug into her skin.

“What…?” she breathed, pulling harder, then harder still. She didn’t stop until the bite of the metal into her wrist was too much to bear.

Panic clawed its way in to overtake her rational thoughts as she tried to make out the few details of the surrounding area. With her free hand, she touched the cool metal that still cut into her flesh.

A pair of handcuffs, one closed around her arm, and the other around a pipe or a pole—she couldn’t tell. She thought she could see the shape of her arm, but for all she knew, the sight might have been a figment of her imagination.

Unless the house she shared with Jon held a secret room that the realtor hadn’t mentioned, Natalie was certain she was no longer at home. The basement of their split-level residence was finished, and even the cement floor of the laundry room was more refined than the rough surface where she now lay.

Biting her tongue to stifle a surprised cry at the realization, she pushed herself to sit. Each motion was more arduous than the last, her limbs feeling as if they were trapped in a vat of molasses.

The fingers of her bound hand were cold and tingled from the lack of circulation. Strands of her shoulder-length hair were matted to the side of her face with sweat, and her head pounded with every beat of her heart.

This must be a dream. Any second, she would wake up to the drone of the television as another rerun of a cooking show came to an end.

Teeth clamped together, she pulled her knees up to her chest and closed her eyes.

Was she in hell? Had she died in her sleep? Had she ever really bought a house or married Jonathan Falkner, or was this where she had been the entire time? Had their uneventful, albeit peaceful life in Baltimore been an illusion?

No, that was ridiculous.

She needed to get her thoughts under control if she wanted any chance to figure out where she actually was.

Eyes closed, she relaxed her shoulders, inhaled, and counted to eight. Clenching and unclenching her hands, she exhaled and repeated the process. Eight in, four out. Eight in, four out.

The icy tinge of adrenaline and fear still chilled her, and her palms were still clammy, but the swirling vortex of farfetched scenarios had calmed enough to allow room for rational thought.

Before she started to walk back through her most recent memories, her breath caught in her throat.

There was someone else in the room with her.

She had been unable to hear their breathing over the rush of her pulse, and even now, she had to strain her ears to make out the sound.

“Hello?” she managed through chattering teeth. The word was little more than a squeak. “I-is someone there?”

No matter how diligently she tuned in to the still world around her, the silence was deafening. There was only more of the quiet, ragged breathing accompanied by an occasional gurgle that wasn’t natural.

Natalie had never been an expert in the health field, but even she could tell that the person at the other end of the room was in bad shape.

“Can you hear me?” she asked.

A low moan was her only response.

How had it come to this?

As hard as she tried, she couldn’t remember a single event after the plate had slipped out of her grasp. Without a doubt, the sting she’d felt in her neck had to do with the inky darkness by which she was now surrounded.

But why? And better yet, where? Who? What in the hell was going on?

As if on cue, a muffled thud sounded out in the distance. The slat of light that pierced through the gaps in the doorframe seemed as bright as an overhead fixture. The door eased open with a rusty creak, and she thought she might have been witness to the explosive death of a star.

Tears rolled down her cheeks from the sudden sting of the light. She used her free hand to block out a portion of the glow as the sound of footsteps grew nearer. Through her eyelids, the illumination changed again as the visitor flicked a switch to bathe them in light.

The light was like razor blades slicing through her pupils.

She was desperate to see this person, to learn who they were and make sense of this musty room, but she hadn’t had a chance to let her sensitive eyes adjust before the man spoke.

“You are awake.”

The simple observation was tinged with a heavy accent. Russian? She didn’t know anyone who spoke with a Russian accent. None that she could think of.

Desperate to clear her vision, she blinked rapidly as she squinted up at the man. His face was rugged with a five o’clock shadow that darkened his cheeks. His close-cropped hair was styled, and with the leather jacket, button-down shirt, and dark wash jeans, he looked like he might have just come from a nightclub.

“Who are you?” Natalie was ashamed at how weak her voice sounded. How stricken. She blinked a few more times before she could stand to meet his gaze as she swallowed in an effort to work up enough saliva to speak clearly.

“You can call me Alek.”

Before she could think of another question, she caught the first glimpse of the other prisoner.

Crimson smeared the dingy floor, and more had spattered against the wall. Like Natalie, one of the man’s wrists was handcuffed to a metal pole that extended from the floor to the ceiling. The sickly overhead light caught the shiny spots of fresh blood along his arms and his stomach. As her gaze finally settled on her husband’s face, a startled cry burst from her throat.

“No…” Horror and grief gripped at her chest as tears burned their way into her eyes. “No, Jon, no.”

Anxiety closed around her heart and pressed on her lungs as she tried to take in a breath of air, but it felt like someone might have been sitting on her chest. She glanced to the silver handcuffs that bound her wrist to a rust-specked radiator. If she had taken a second to consider the bind, she would have known she couldn’t break free. The radiator might have been in sorry shape, but it was sturdy.

But as time slowed to a crawl, she knew one thing for sureshe had to try to get to her husband. Wheezing for breath, she jerked her arm forward. The metal bit into her already abraded wrist as she strained against the shackle.

The pain was excruciating.

Like a thousand needles scraping already raw nerves, she sobbed when the first drop of blood appeared. Gritting her teeth, she tried harder.

“You can do this,” she whispered to herself.

She bit back a scream when the man laughed at her efforts.

No, she couldn’t displace the heavy radiator, but she had a petite frame like her mother. Maybe she could pull her wrist through the handcuff, especially with the blood to lubricate the way. As she tucked her thumb beneath her palm and flattened her fingers, another low chuckle froze her in place.

“Those are small handcuffs.” His accent was thicker now. “Same handcuffs your American police use for, how do you say? Juveniles.”

With a fervent headshake, she snapped her attention back to the well-dressed Russian. “That’s not…” She paused. She was out of breath, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t fill her lungs with precious air. “Youyou can’t do this.” As much as she wanted to scream at the man, her voice was little more than a hoarse croak.

Her struggle clearly amused him.

“I can.” Scratching the side of his face, he glanced back to the still form and shrugged. “Your husband, Jon, yes?”

“Why are you doing this?” The question was hardly a whisper, and she doubted the man even heard her.

If he had, he didn’t react.

He is shot. In his stomach.” His conversational manner made her want to scream. “Most people do not survive injuries such as this unless they are transported to a hospital right away. You are aware of this, yes?”

“I don’t understand.” She wanted to demand answers from him, but all she could manage were dumbfounded statements of shock.

“Let me simplify. He is dying. Slowly. And by morning, he will be past saving.”

A sob burst from her lips. “Why?”

Again, he ignored her. “Of course, he was never meant to survive. Jonathan Falkner is nothing more than the message.”

“What?” She opened and closed her mouth several times before she could form another coherent remark. “Message? What message? Who are you? What do you want from us?” She was babbling now, but she couldn’t make herself stop, her volume rising as her panic grew. “Please, just tell me! Whatever it is, I’ll give it to you. Anything. Just get him, please, get him to a hospital!”

The Russian had started to shake his head before she even finished, the evil smile still playing on his lips. “No. We want nothing from you, Natalie. Your father is, how you say, a different story. He owes me and my people.”

“My father?” she echoed, the word reflecting just how incredulous she was. “What could you possibly want from him? He’s an airline pilot!”

“Eric Dalton.” Only the brief flare of his nostrils betrayed his annoyance. “That is your father, yes?”

She could only gape at him.

Eric Dalton was a commercial airline pilot, not a criminal. He was a family man. A good man. In fact, he’d done nothing but take excellent care of Natalie’s mother as she recovered from a traumatic car accident. What could this Alek person want from him?

Did he mean her brother? Ethan was still in college. To her knowledge, neither he nor any member of her family had any history with thedamnwhoever this man’s “people” were. A gang? The mafia?

She shook her head. Surely not. She must have indeed watched too many movies.

Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm herself. Think. What did she know so far?

She knew that her captor was Russian, or from a country with a very similar accent. Thinking hard, Natalie wondered if his country of origin had anything to do with this? Earlier that year, Natalie had purchased a kit to trace the genetics of her ancestry. There was Dutch, Polish, Scandinavian, but no Russian, so she didn’t think that could be a connection.

Was this about money? Her family had always been financially comfortable. The combined incomes of her mother and father put them solidly in the upper-middle class, and even when her father was furloughed on a couple occasions in the past, they held their finances together. What could any of them possibly owe to someone like this man?

“You have the wrong person,” she finally managed. “This isn’t right. Please, you’ve got the wrong person. Just let me go, and I swear, I won’t say anything. Just, just let me take Jon to a hospital. I’ll say we were mugged, that we didn’t see who did it. I’m not the person you want, okay? But if you just let us go, we can pretend like none of this happened.”

With the same unsettling chuckle, he shook his head. “No, we have the right person. You are Natalie Falkner, and your husband is Jonathan Falkner.”

“There must be others with the same name,” she wheezed. Her parents were as straitlaced as they came, and her brother had graduated high school at the top of his class. Ethan was a quiet, thoughtful young man, and there was no way in hell he’d be mixed up with any of this.

But she had a half-brother too. She had only met him on a handful of occasions, but she knew he was in law enforcement. No. Not just law enforcement. Noah Dalton was a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“You don’t want my father.” Her voice was stronger now. Panicked. Too loud. She didn’t care. “You have to have him confused with someone else. Withwith Noah Dalton. My father’s a pilot. Please, you’ve got the wrong person. You want Noah, my half-brother. I-I can help you, just, please. Help him.” With a pleading look, she tilted her chin toward Jon’s still form.

Another chuckle. The sound was devoid of mirth, and his smirk was as chilling an expression as she had ever seen. “I do not make mistakes, and you are already helping me. See him?” Brows raised, the Russian extended a hand to point at Jon. “He is the message. And you, Natalie, you arehow do you say it?” He paused to snap his fingers, but she could tell it was just an act. “Collateral. You are collateral.”

“Collateral?” The word felt almost foreign on her tongue. “What does that mean? Collateral for what? What are you talking about? You want Noah, not me, not my father. Not Jon!”

Some of the grim amusement vanished from his eyes as he lowered his arm. “No. Eric Dalton has seven days to keep his word, or you will die just as your husband will die. We shall discover during that time how much your father loves you, yes?”

The rusted, metal door at his back was latched closed to block both sight and sound from the world beyond, but she was out of options.

“Help!” she yelled, screaming at the top of her lungs. “Please, someone, help! My husband has been shot!”

With a groan, the Russian rolled his eyes and reached into his jacket. The polished steel of the handgun glinted in the eerie light, but he held the weapon by the barrel as he approached.

Fear became a living thing that crept over her like a hungry beast. “No, please, no!”

The pleas fell on deaf ears.

 He didn’t bother to reply before he snapped his arm forward to smash the grip of the weapon into her temple. A burst of white light flooded her periphery, and then the world was still.

Chapter Two

Though Winter Black only heard half the conversation, she could tell that Noah’s late-night phone call was more than some random drunk dial. What time was it anyway?

As she watched her friend and fellow FBI partner, Noah Dalton, pace his apartment, his body language was as tense as she’d ever seen it. When he practically growled at whoever had called, she glanced down to her phone and pushed herself to sit.

She could scarcely believe the text notification on her screen. The IT department at the Federal Bureau of Investigation had sent her a message:

Email location confirmed. Origination: Harrisonburg, Virginia

Her heart hammered in her chest as she read the message a second time. Could it be true?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s computer gurus were letting her know that the email she’d received at the end of the Schmidt investigation a few weeks ago—the email from her baby brother—had been sent from her hometown. The same town where her parents had been brutally murdered, and the same town where her little brother had been taken from their family home in the middle of the night. Taken by Douglas Kilroy, The Preacher. The same man who had butchered her parents in their bed had stolen away with six-year-old Justin Black in the middle of that horrific night.

Then, out of the blue, she’d received an email that read simply, “Hey, sis. Heard you’ve been looking for me.

Now that she had learned the location of the email’s origin, there was no doubt in her mind. The message had been sent by Justin. To Winter, there could be no alternative explanation.

“What do you mean?” Noah’s voice jerked her out of the grim reverie. He had paused in the middle of his pacing, and the flickering light of the television caught the silver band of his watch as he rubbed his eyes with his free hand.

A tinny voice responded to the inquiry, but try as she might, Winter couldn’t make out the words. She tucked her knees up to her chest and leaned back against the couch. She could only hope that the call was unimportant and that Noah’s mounting frustration was just the result of being roused from sleep at such a late hour.

As she reluctantly locked the screen of her phone, she kept her vacant stare on the coffee table.

She didn’t need to be nosy, she reminded herself. If the call was important, Noah would give her a rundown of the conversation when it was over. Forcing her attention back to the television, she combed the fingers of one hand through her disheveled hair.

For some reason, the feel of the long strands made her think of her friend, Dr. Autumn Trent, whose deep shade of auburn was a stark contrast to Winter’s black locks.

Autumn had recently gained her doctoral degree in forensic psychology and had helped them solve their last case.

What advice would Autumn give her now? Winter wondered. Would she agree that the email must have come from Justin? Or would she think that Winter was reaching for the conclusion her heart wanted most?

Except, Winter didn’t actually know what her heart wanted when it came to her little brother.

More than anything, she wanted to find him alive and happy, but in the secret recesses of her heart, she worried about what she would actually find.

The boy would have been raised by a monster, after all. Some psychopaths were born, but some were made.

Was that her brother?

Winter closed her eyes, trying not to imagine how the past thirteen years of his life had been. Had Justin witnessed other atrocious acts that the FBI knew nothing about? Other murders where The Preacher didn’t leave his signature so the boy could learn? Or participate? Had he sat on Douglas Kilroy’s knee, listening with rapt attention about how the world was filled with sinners, and how it was Justin’s duty to eliminate them all from this earth?

The thought made Winter shiver, and she opened her eyes when Noah spat, “I’m shocked,” the words dripping with a biting sarcasm she didn’t often witness in him.

As Winter’s attention shifted from thoughts of her brother to Noah, she let out a long breath. Whatever happened or didn’t happen in her search for Justin, she had friends. She was no longer alone.

“Fine,” Noah growled. “Text me the flight information, and I’ll pick you up from the airport.”

As intent as she had been to not listen in on his call, the statements had her ears perking up. Who was Noah talking to? What was making him so unhappy?

A few seconds later, Noah tossed his phone onto the couch but continued to pace.

Winter cleared her throat. “You okay?” She made sure to keep her tone gentle. She might not have paid attention to the full extent of his conversation, but she could tell when Noah was agitated.

The shadows moved along his face as he clenched his jaw and shook his head. “I’m not really sure.”

So many thoughts whipped through her mind, she had a difficult time picking one on which she wanted to focus.

She wanted to ask him about how or why she had fallen asleep at his side for the second time, and she wanted to know what the sleeping situation meant for the future of their friendship. At the same time, she felt as though she needed to tell him what the IT department had just confirmed about Justin’s email.

But when he dropped his hand back down to his side, she saw a glint in his eyes that she could only describe as a cross between irritation and melancholy.

She swallowed the trepidation about their relationship and about Justin’s email as she straightened in her seat.

“Who was it?” Though her voice was quiet, the words cut through the still air like a gunshot.

Heaving another sigh, Noah flopped back onto the couch. He slowly shook his head. “I don’t really know what to call him.”

Winter turned to face him more fully. “What?”

Well, that ruled out Max or anyone else at the bureau.

With one hand, he rubbed his eyes. “Nothing,” he muttered. “It’s all right. It’s not work, at least not technically. I can tell you about it tomorrow. You should head home and get some sleep.”

Winter bit her tongue to keep her exasperated sigh at bay. “I guess I’m getting a taste of my own medicine, aren’t I?”

His green eyes flicked to her as he flashed her a puzzled look. “Huh?”

“It’s pretty obvious it’s not ‘all right,’ and if you think I can just go home and fall asleep after this, you’ve lost your damn mind. You remember when I used to do that to you, right? Keep all that shit to myself and bottle it up until it made my head explode?” She didn’t pause to consider the irony of those words.

“Oh.” He shifted his gaze back to the coffee table and ran a hand through his hair. As the unease lifted from his face, he opened his mouth to elaborate, but she cut him off.

“No.” She shook her head for emphasis. “No, I know that look. I know that look means you’re about to go on a spiel about something to defend yourself. So help me, Noah, if you’re about to try to tell me how this is different than when I was keeping stuff from you, I’m going to shove you off this damn couch.”

She ignored the flicker of amusement on his face at her less than menacing threat. She would tell him about the email, but this was not the time or the place. Though she could tell he had masked part of his frustration, she hadn’t missed the pang of melancholy that had gone along with the irritability. There would be a better time to bring up the topic of Justin, she just had to wait for it.

Crossing her arms, she flashed him a look. “You just got a phone call at one in the morning from someone that doesn’t have anything to do with work, and now you look like you just saw a ghost. Nothing about that says ‘it’s all right’ to me. I get it, you know. You know I had a hard day, and you don’t want to tell me because you think I’m dealing with enough already. But I can deal with whatever’s going on in my head and be your friend at the same time.”

His defensiveness appeared to slip away in the quiet moments that followed. The first hint of a wistful smile was on his lips as he turned his vacant stare away from the hall and to her.

As he spread his hands, he shrugged. “You’re right. I already know I won’t be getting back to sleep, so I don’t know why I thought it’d be any different for you.”

Every second of silence that followed his words was just short of unbearable. But as much as she wanted to reiterate her concern, as much as she wanted to prod him for an answer, she bit back the slew of questions.

“That call.”

At the quiet sound of his voice, she snapped her attention away from the clock to meet his gaze.

“I still don’t really know what to call that guy.” He shrugged, clearly at a loss. “Haven’t heard a damn word from him in years, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t on purpose. That was Eric Dalton.”

Winter scanned through her mental Rolodex. “Dalton?”

The name sounded familiar, but she couldn’t recall any in-depth conversations where he had mentioned members of his father’s side of the family. She knew his family history was complicated, but she had never pried into the specifics. For the most part, he didn’t mention them, and Winter didn’t ask.

“Yeah. He’s my biological father. He ditched me, my sister, and Mom when I was little, five or six. I don’t know why he split, but if I had to guess, I’d say it had something to do with a pretty lady he knocked up in Baltimore. And considering Natalie’s only a couple years younger than me, I’d say that happened while he was still married to my mom. Don’t know why in the hell it took him so long to leave, but once he did, he was gone.”

Winter’s heart squeezed in compassion. “Ahh, I’m sorry.”

Noah lifted a nonchalant shoulder, although the expression on his face was a clear indication that he still held strong feelings regarding their abandonment. It made Winter’s heart ache for him even more.

“My sister and I would see him once or twice a year for holidays, but whenever we stayed with him and his new wife and kids, it was pretty obvious we didn’t belong. They lived in some cookie-cutter house in the ‘burbs, part of a homeowner’s association. Storybook shit.”

She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. “I know the type.”

The scowl was back. “One year, when I was in eighth grade and my sister was a sophomore, we just stopped going to visit him. Honestly, I don’t even think he noticed. Ever since then, I’ve maybe talked to him a grand total of five times. Once in person, the other ones on the phone.”

“Wow.” Winter tucked one leg beneath herself, twisting her hands together to stop from reaching for him. “What an asshole. I’m sorry. I mean, I knew he was an ass, but I didn’t know how bad it was.”

“Don’t worry about it, darlin’. My sister and I had Chris, and we still had Mom. Even compared to when Eric was actually around, my stepfather was a way better dad. You know, one of these days, you’ll have to come with me when I visit home so you can meet them. Plus, if you want a tattoo, my sister’s shop is one of the best in Austin.”

Winter gaped at him. “Your sister is a tattoo artist?”

His face brightened as he laughed at her awestruck remark. “Wouldn’t guess, huh? Yeah, she’s been tattooing people since she got out of the Navy. Her and my mom are both artists, but I guess it skipped me.”

She couldn’t seem to make her mouth close. “That’s no kidding. I’ve played Pictionary with you before, remember?”

He waggled his eyebrows at her. “I have other skills that I can do with my hands.”

Something deep and low in her belly twisted as she tried to not think of what all those skills were. She punched his shoulder. “Be serious. And I’m seriously sorry that your stepfamily was so shitty.”

Another shrug. “There are kids out there who grow up without a dad or a father figure, but I never felt that way. I never felt like my family was ‘broken’ or whatever else people want to call it. Honestly, this random-ass phone call is more weird and annoying than anything else.”

Leaning back in her seat, Winter tugged at the ends of her long hair. “Now that you explain it, yeah. It seems a little weird. What did he want? I doubt he called to apologize for being an asshole.”

“No, he sure didn’t,” Noah muttered. “He said he needed my help, something about how he fucked up and now he thought someone was trying to kill him. And guess what…?” He looked at her expectantly.

“What?”

“He’s catching the first flight into Richmond this morning.”

Winter chewed on the edge of her thumbnail. “He seriously thinks someone’s trying to kill him, and his first thought is to fly to Richmond to ask for help from the son he hasn’t talked to in literally years? Does he think he’ll get some kind of special treatment just because his biological son is in the FBI?”

He growled low in his throat. “Probably. That’s all I can think of. I don’t know why else he wouldn’t just go to the cops in Baltimore. Either that, or he’ll ask me for money when he gets here.”

“But isn’t he a pilot? And aren’t pilots pretty loaded? Has he asked you for money before?”

Noah scrubbed his face with his hands. “No, but I wouldn’t put anything past him at this point.”

“I don’t suppose he mentioned why he’s in trouble? Or who he’s in trouble with?”

“Said he didn’t want to go into detail on the phone.”

Winter fought against an eye roll. “Why? Was he worried that the FBI was spying on him?”

Shaking his head, Noah reached to readjust the band of his vintage watch. “Who knows. I don’t even really know what in the hell he thinks he’ll get from coming out here.”

“It’s been a long time since you’ve seen him, right?”

Noah nodded. “Yeah.”

“Maybe he’s changed. I don’t mean a total one-eighty, but maybe he’s not that same asshole you remember. Maybe he’s just a little less of an asshole.” Even as the words left her lips, Winter didn’t believe her own bullshit. The mention of Eric’s poor treatment of Noah and his sister had brought out an unexpected pang of something close to maternal that made her want to soothe all his hurts away.

Noah gave her a you’ve got to be kidding me look.

She lifted both hands in surrender. “Yeah, okay. Fair enough. That was dumb.”

As much as she wanted to paint an optimistic picture of the upcoming reunion with Eric Dalton, the petulance in Noah’s voice whenever he mentioned the man was unmistakable. She knew the knee-jerk comments about positivity and change were to help her friend, but she also knew that she trusted his judgment. If he still held on to so much hostility after all these years, then there was a damn good reason for it.

She didn’t know Eric Dalton at all, so she couldn’t assess if he was lying, but if the man wanted to rush into the arms of the FBI in hopes of special treatment, he was about to be sorely disappointed.

“He must think he’s in danger, right?” she asked.

Noah nodded. “He sounded like it too. At least as far as I could tell from a phone conversation. He was talking really fast.”

“If he’s in danger, then we’d better bring him to the office. Make it official so we can open up a proper investigation.” Winter had never met Eric Dalton, but she already knew she didn’t like him.

Noah was one of the best people she’d ever met. He was kind, honest, smart, and funny. There was a certain down-home charm that came with his charming smiles and his folksy comments, but behind those green eyes was an unmistakable keenness that most people tended to underestimate.

Though Noah brushed off Eric’s sudden reappearance as an annoyance, Winter knew that much of his aloof demeanor was feigned. To be sure, he held no sense of affection for his father, but the man’s betrayal still stung even after all these years.

He has enough on his plate.

Plus, the email was probably a dead end, anyway. During the first leg of their initial investigation into Justin’s whereabouts, Winter had been hopeful that they would find a substantial clue to point them in the right direction.

Instead, they ran headlong into one dead end right after another.

Why would the email be any different?

She didn’t want to get her hopes up again only to have them dashed, and she didn’t want to heap more conflict onto Noah’s plate for no good reason. For the time being, she would keep the email to herself until she was sure the message had the potential to actually lead them somewhere.

But despite the rationalizations, the pang of guilt was persistent.

 If she was keeping the news about Justin a secret for the benefit of Noah’s mental health, then why did it feel so much like she was lying to him?


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Winter's Secret by Mary Stone

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