Shannon Clancy cleared the paddock and tapped her heels into Paint’s flanks, urging him into a canter, then a run. Her heart pounded as he picked up speed, the mass of him warm and powerful beneath her. He was enjoying this as much as she was. She bent low over his neck, her knees clenched to his sides, breathing in the smell of him, feeling his mane flying beneath her as her own hair was swept back in the wind.
This was the feeling of power and freedom she craved when she rode. She was glad she had broken free from the house, from the emotional chains that held her down as surely as the Lilliputians had bound Gulliver. Her parents were arguing about bills again, and Trish, her fourteen-year-old sister, was in hysterics over a disaster at school.
It was bad, Shannon had to admit. Trish had done something monumentally stupid, something she didn’t think would get out, but clearly it had because half the school was calling her out.
It was maybe the worst thing that had ever happened to Trish, who was a straight arrow if there ever was one. But it was not the end of the world, Shannon tried to tell her. No need for hysterics. But Trish couldn’t hear her.
Shannon had to walk away, had to get out.
On Paint, she was free of all of it. She could go anywhere, dare anything, protected by this huge creature beneath her who obeyed her every command. She could be Daenerys riding her dragon, or Aria, or the blue woman in Avatar riding hers. She extended her left hand down Paint’s neck, caressing him, while with her right she gripped the pommel of her saddle. They often rode bareback, but today they were riding into San Felasco Hammock and would be out for hours. Shannon’s chest expanded at the thought of a day of freedom. “Yes,” she said into Paint’s mane.
“Hey, wait up,” Elise called from behind her.
Shannon turned to see her friend’s strawberry-blond hair flying in the wind. She rode too high, Shannon thought, and as a result, bounced on her palomino, Silver Streak.
“Silver’s too old to gallop for long,” Elise called.
“Says who?” Shannon shouted over her shoulder. “He’s loving it.” Still, she reined Paint in, wishing there wasn’t always something or someone holding her back, wishing that she could open up and gallop for hours.
She slowed to a trot, then a walk, allowing Elise to come alongside her.
They glanced at each other and grinned. It was good they could both get away, that they could still do this. They had another year and a half of high school, what seemed like an eternity, but after that, college and who knew what future awaited them.
Shannon’s mother wanted her to apply to Seven Sister colleges, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Mount Holyoke. Those were the schools her mother had dreamed of going to when she was Shannon’s age. But Shannon had no desire to go north to a snarky all-girls’ school that cost a million dollars. She was still working on how to break it to her mom without disappointing her. Shannon would much rather stay in town and go to the University of Florida, which meant she could move out of the house, but she could keep riding, and nothing had to change.
“Come on,” she said, urging Paint to a trot as they cleared the gates to the park. “Let’s see what we can find.”
The abandoned trailer they happened onto late in the afternoon was better than anything they could have hoped for.
Shannon and Elise looked at each other, their eyes wide.
Then Shannon grinned and nudged Paint forward. They would explore it. Of course they would.
The trailer was half hidden at the edge of an overgrown clearing, the siding streaked with rust, the roof shingles curling. Weeds grew waist high up to the front steps, and wild grapes and Virginia creeper clambered over the roof. It wouldn’t be long before the structure was engulfed in a mantle of green.
“Cool,” Shannon said, aware that Elise was not following her. “We must be out of the park.” She glanced back. “Let’s check it out.”
“I don’t know,” Elise cautioned. “It’s private property.”
“It doesn’t look like anyone’s been here for years.”
“I don’t know,” Elise repeated. “It could be a hunting camp.” She had stopped Silver twenty feet into the clearing. She was ready to bolt at the first sign of anyone.
“I’ll take a look,” Shannon said, as she urged Paint around the side of the trailer, circling to check for signs of life. The saplings that grew too close to the trailer were a sign it had been abandoned for four or five years.
A wooden outhouse stood on the edge of the woods, its door propped open to reveal the bench seat within.
She glanced back at the trailer. Maybe there had never been a sewer hook-up. She glanced around the clearing and urged Paint around the far side toward the front. No sign of a power pole.
“No signs of life,” she announced. “It looks like the place was off the grid. No power, no septic. There’s an outhouse out back. Maybe it was dumped here, like you said, for a hunting camp or something.” She dismounted and handed Elise Paint’s reins.
“What’re you doing?” Elise sounded scared.
“Having a look,” Shannon said casually.
“Why not? Whoever dumped it here died or moved away or forgot about it.” As she said it, she glanced at the trailer, the thought occurring to her that the owner might be lying long dead in a back bedroom. They might be about to discover a dead body. “We need to take a look,” she said as if it were a civic duty.
“I don’t like this,” Elise hesitated.
“Oh, come on. Don’t be a scaredy-cat.”
Shannon walked through the tall grass and saplings to the front of the trailer. She stood at the front window but it was too high to see in. She turned to Elise. “You take a look on Silver.”
Elise dutifully urged Silver forward and crouched down in the saddle to peer in the dusty window. “Can’t see much. Ratty old couch, breakfast table, counter into a kitchenette.”
“No dead bodies?” Shannon asked.
Elise snorted. “Don’t joke.”
Shannon stepped up onto the stoop and tried the door. It opened an inch and stuck. Not locked, but jammed. She gripped the doorknob and pushed. When the door gave way, she stumbled forward and almost fell.
The horses spooked backward at the sudden movement, and Elise pulled back on the reins. “Whoa, boy. Steady. You OK?” she called to Shannon.
“Yeah,” Shannon said, trying to sound more confident than when felt. The dark interior exhaled damp and mildew, but nothing worse. She turned on the flashlight app on her phone and glanced back at Elise. “I don’t smell anything rotten. I’m gonna see what’s inside.”
“Be careful,” Elise warned. “The floor could be rotten. There could be spiders or snakes.”
Shannon made a face, but she took a deep breath, steeling herself before she stepped further into the interior.
The living room had a nasty, stained couch on one wall and a dusty Formica table and two chairs on the other. Everything was covered in dust and smelled of mildew.
When she stepped toward the kitchen, she saw why. There had been a leak around a vent, and the floor was spongy. She stepped back, imagining breaking through to some dark crawlspace beneath.
A black garbage bag overflowed with crushed beer cans, the black plastic already shredding, spilling the cans onto the floor. A guy hangout for sure. Who else crushed cans?
A hallway led from the living area back, two doors on each side.
The first door opened onto a tiny bathroom. The toilet bowl was empty, the sides stained rusty brown. Shannon turned the tap but no water came out. The shower curtain was brittle, and when she pulled it back, it disintegrated in her hand. Pieces fell into a tub beside desiccated spiders and roaches.
She backed out of the bathroom and opened the door across the hall. She turned the handle, and the door opened four inches but stuck on ancient carpet, the frame having settled or the floor buckled. She had to push with her shoulder to open the door wide enough that she could turn sideways and fit her shoulders through.
Two crude bunk beds made out of two-by-fours filled the far wall, the mattresses bare. The blinds on the window were closed, and she left them that way, afraid that, like the shower curtain, they would come apart at her touch. A second bedroom across the hall held identical bunk beds.
A hunting camp, Shannon thought. Had to be. Either that, or, her imagination caught fire, a hiding place for illegal immigrants, or, better yet, girls like the ones she’d read about who were induced to come to this country by the promise of jobs and then held captive as sex slaves. She shuddered at the image of girls on those bunks. She pictured them, dark-haired, dark-eyed, their cheeks hollow, lifting themselves up on one elbow to see who was at the door.
Shannon stepped back into the hall and closed the door behind her.
The third bedroom held a double bed with a dark flowered comforter. No dead bodies in sight.
Maybe this was where they brought the girls when it was their turn to service a john.
Not a likely scenario, she thought. More likely, these rooms were used by a bunch of pot-bellied, grizzle-faced men who came out here to drink and smoke and fart with abandon as much as they came to hunt.
“Shan?” Elise called from outside, from a world of sunshine that knew nothing of girls held captive and forced to service gross old men.
“I’m coming,” Shannon called. Suddenly, she wanted out of the dank, fetid stink of the rooms with their whiff of male evil.
“What did you find?” Elise demanded the moment she appeared on the stoop.
“Place is abandoned. Couple of homemade bunk beds in two of the rooms, a double bed in one. My guess is that it was some kind of a guy hangout or hunting camp. Lots of beer cans and not much else. You want to take a look?”
Elise shook her head. “Place gives me the creeps.”
When Elise dropped her off, the windows of Shannon’s house were dark, and she remembered with a pang that her parents were going out to dinner and had asked her to be home by six. But it was silly. At fourteen, Trish was old enough not to need babysitting.
When she flicked on the kitchen light, she was suddenly ravenous. Lunch had been Gatorade and granola bars. She pulled open the fridge to find two plastic-wrapped plates her mother had left for their supper.
She lifted the plates out and called, “Trish, time to eat.”
She peeled off the plastic wrap, slipped the first plate in the microwave, and punched two minutes.
“I don’t care how shitty you feel, you need to eat,” she called up the stairs. When she got no answer, she growled, and headed up to Trish’s room, irritated that she had to beg her sister to eat.
She paused at Trish’s closed door, listening before knocking lightly. When she got no answer, she called, “No boy in there, I hope,” as she pushed open the door.
The lights were off, and Trish was asleep on the bed, curled up in jeans and a sweatshirt. Let her sleep, Shannon told herself. She was probably exhausted from the emotional turmoil of the day.
She headed back downstairs, the aroma of meatloaf and mashed potatoes making her stomach growl. She wasn’t going to wait for Trish.
She poured herself a glass of milk and sat down to her dinner. As she ate, she remembered Trish’s tears the night before. First, the disbelief and hurt that Logan, a shy guy who ran track with her and who she thought liked her, could have shared her picture. Then the horror and the tears as reality sank in and Snapchat messages slamming her appeared and disappeared on her phone.
“Have you talked to him about it?” Shannon had asked her.
“He swears he didn’t do it,” Trish sobbed. “But I don’t know if I can believe him.”
Shannon had tried to tell her not to freak out. It would blow over, but Trish had sobbed until her face was splotchy, and Shannon was afraid she was going to make herself sick.
Shannon put down her fork, aware that the food sat like lead in her stomach. Something didn’t feel right.
She rose and headed back up the stairs. She would wake Trish up, and they would talk if that’s what Trish wanted. They would watch a movie if she didn’t want to talk.
Shannon pushed open the door to Trish’s room and flicked on the overhead light. Trish lay in the same position, sleeping peacefully on her side.
Then she saw the prescription bottle and the empty glass on the bedside table. Dread froze her for an instant. No. No.
The bottle was open. She picked it up with a trembling hand. Empty. The label read Ambien. Prescribed to their mother. Take one at bedtime to aid sleep.
She grabbed her sister by the shoulders and shook her. “Trish, wake up.” When she got no response, she ran to the bathroom and filled a glass of water from the tap.
She bolted back to the bedroom and splashed water on Trish’s face. Trish groaned but didn’t wake.
Shannon grabbed her cell phone and dialed 911.
Sergeant Cory Marin stood in the doorway of what would one day be the baby’s room, the golden pine furniture her father had bought at Christmas—crib, rocking chair, changing table, dresser—gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight.
She’d had a reminder text about her ultrasound appointment on Monday, and she was suddenly afraid of all the things that could go wrong. Her age, thirty-four but thirty-five when the baby was due in mid-August, made hers a high-risk pregnancy. She had a one-in-two-hundred-and-fifty chance of a Down syndrome baby, so along with the ultrasound, the doctor had scheduled a blood test to do an initial screening for birth defects.
She would be seeing the first images of the baby inside her at the same time she might find out something was wrong with it.
“Hey, babe,” Marty said, brushing past her and stepping into the room. “What are you up to?”
She wouldn’t be able to hide what she was feeling, not from Marty. “Maybe I shouldn’t have let my dad do all this. Not so soon.”
He put a hand on her shoulder, his eyes asking why not.
“They’re doing a blood test on Monday when they do the ultrasound,” she said. “She wants to check for birth defects.”
His hand tightened on her shoulder.
“I don’t think I could bear that,” she said, turning into him, her face against his chest. She hadn’t realized how happy she was to be having this baby until she contemplated the possibility of losing it.
“It’s going to be OK,” he said into her hair. “Don’t worry about something you have no control over.”
“Easier said than done.”
“I know,” he said, his gray-blue eyes calm and thoughtful. “Come on. Let’s make dinner.”
As Cory chopped garlic, celery, onions, and peppers for the chili she and Marty were making, she felt a wave of gratitude for her life. Pretty Boy crab-walked along the perch set in front of windows overlooking the deck, his eye on the bird feeders as he whistled and imitated the staccato call of a cardinal.
Her life was good. Her life was full. She was happy to be cooking with Marty in this kitchen, happy to be painting a new scene over the old. When it had been Fletcher Manning’s house and she believed she was in love with him, she had watched, passive, as Fletcher prepared one of his elaborate Sicilian meals. Now, she realized the Sicilian heritage could have been as made up as the rest of his story.
She looked over at Marty, who was opening cans of tomatoes and kidney beans. Marty was solid. He was a good man. He was someone she could trust. It didn’t hurt that he was six five, broad-shouldered, and graceful as a cat. Even if they turned out not to be right for each other, he would not transform into someone she did not know in front of her eyes, as Fletcher Manning had done. She was happy to be living in the present, to be layering good memories over bad.
She swept the chopped vegetables into a sauté pan with olive oil and gave it a stir as her cell phone rang in her pocket.
Pretty Boy bobbed his head and said, “‘Ello,” as if he were answering the phone.
Marty glanced up, curious whether this would be a call-out. Cory was weekend duty sergeant.
She tugged the phone out and saw the caller was Brandy.
She shook her head and mouthed Brandy as she turned back to the sauté pan. Brandy taught media studies at the university and served as her popular-culture consultant.
She held the phone with one hand and stirred with the other. “What’s up?”
“Everything, if you want to know. Fish and I are in a kerfuffle again.”
“Kerfuffle?” Cory couldn’t help but smile.
“You know what I mean. Not fighting exactly, but he’s being distant, and I’m getting my feelings hurt.”
Cory thought she heard him exhale smoke. If he was smoking, he was more upset than she’d guessed. His smoking would be one more thing for him and Fish to fight about. Fish wanted him to cut back if he couldn’t quit, and Brandy was trying to limit his cigarettes to after dinner.
“Go on,” she said.
“Every time I share anything I’ve planned for the wedding, he wants to change it, dial it down, not spend so much money. He keeps worrying about the restaurant. I get it that it’s the first year, but things are going well. He’s actually started making some money, so why can’t he lighten up and pay attention to something else? Maybe care about something I’m doing?”
Cory read his tone as why can’t he pay more attention to me?
“Honestly, from the way he’s acting, I don’t even know if he wants to get married.”
“Whoa there. Don’t let this happen to you guys.”
“People plan these elaborate weddings, and then they get stressed and end up fighting.”
Brandy sighed. “Maybe you can talk to him. See if you can figure out what’s going on with him.”
Cory disliked being set to spy on a friend. She wrinkled her brow. “I’m not a counselor, and I don’t want to get in the middle of this.”
“Well, excuuuse me,” Brandy said, getting his nose out of joint. “What are friends for?”
“Friends are there to support each other and be there for each other, not play middleman in a kerfuffle. You guys can work this out if you sit down and talk,” she said. “I’m in the middle of making dinner. I need to get back to it.”
Marty looked up when she hung up. “What’s up with Brandy?”
She shook her head. “He thinks Fish isn’t interested in the wedding and doesn’t have time for him anymore. It’s like he’s jealous of the restaurant.” She paused. “I’m a little worried about them.”
Marty turned to study her.
“It’s like they’re playing tug of war, complaining about each other and feeling sorry for themselves. They’re not on the same team anymore. Fish is all about the restaurant, and Brandy is all about the wedding. They’re bickering.”
Marty shrugged. “It’s got to be stressful, opening a restaurant and planning a wedding. Emotionally and financially.”
Cory paused, thinking. “Do you ever wonder how much they’re spending on the wedding? I mean a five-bedroom house on Cape Cod in May? Not to mention paying for a caterer. It must be driving Fish crazy to pay someone else big bucks to do what he does for a living.”
“Yeah, but he can’t cater his own wedding.”
“If the wedding was in Gainesville, I bet he would. The restaurant staff would do the work.”
Marty picked up chili powder and cumin and began sprinkling them into his sauce.
“Go easy on the spice,” she cautioned, and he set them down. It struck her how much like an old married couple they were, preparing dinner and worrying about friends.
“Frankly, I don’t blame Fish for being worried about the money,” Marty said as he stirred. “Did you ever ask yourself where the money is coming from?”
She had occasionally wondered how Brandy and Fish could afford their lifestyle, the downtown condo, the expensive cruises, and how they could afford to buy the restaurant, let alone fix it up. The building alone must have cost several hundred thousand dollars given its location across from the police department, and Brandy’s salary at the university couldn’t be that high. Fixing up the building couldn’t have been cheap, updating wiring, and installing a commercial kitchen. Cory couldn’t understand why a man had to have a stove that cost more than a car in order to consider himself a chef.
“Everyone says a restaurant loses money for the first six months, so where is the money for the wedding coming from?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I try not to think about other people’s finances.” She paused, aware that she might have sounded critical of Marty’s curiosity. “I guess I assumed they had money saved.”
What did it mean that Marty was questioning Brandy and Fish’s finances? She slid the sautéed vegetables into the chili.
Marty tasted the sauce and started to add more chili powder but stopped himself. He held the spoon out for her to taste.
“Perfect,” she nodded. “Not too spicy.”
“It’s just weird,” he said stirring the pot absently. “They can’t be making more than the two of us, and we couldn’t afford a wedding like that, not in a million years.”
Cory felt some part of her go still. Marty was thinking of weddings, of planning and paying for a wedding, which was the last thing on her mind.
“I don’t know why people spend thousands of dollars on a party and start married life in debt and stressed out,” she said as casually as she could. “No wonder one in two couples divorce within five years.” She glanced over at Marty, who looked surprised and hurt, as if she had rebuked him.
She turned away, signaling that she didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
She didn’t want to think about weddings, large, small or any size. She wasn’t ready for a wedding, but she understood why Marty was in such a big hurry. He still believed that if they got married, people would think the baby was his. He wanted to take care of her, which was sweet and noble.
The problem was she didn’t think she needed taking care of. In fact, she resisted the very idea of being rescued by a knight in shining armor. She could have this baby without the necessity of getting married. It happened all the time. She didn’t need someone to support her.
Besides, she had all the support she needed from her father, Jack Riley, who had appeared in her life like a lightning bolt of good luck when she needed it most. The debacle of Fletcher Manning had led to Jack finding her, which was evidence of some good coming out of bad. Jack had seen a news story in which she was interviewed about the Manning case, and he had recognized her as looking just like the girl he had a brief fling with in New York City over spring break when he was a freshman. Except the woman being interviewed had his green eyes, and was twenty-five years younger, and was named Cory, not Cici, Marin.
He had called Cory the next day, told her he thought she might be his daughter, and said he’d very much like to meet her. He’d driven down from Atlanta the next day, a father appearing as magically as a genie from a bottle. Like a genie, he could grant her any wish money could buy because he was as wealthy as he was sad. He was recovering from the loss of his twenty-one-year old daughter in a car accident and his wife’s death of cancer less than a year later.
Discovering that he had a daughter he had not known existed was the tonic that brought him back to life. He was retired, having sold his IT business after his wife died, and he wanted nothing more than to make it up to Cory for all the years he hadn’t been there.
He had bought the house she loved, even though its karma was somewhat tarnished by having been Fletcher Manning’s house. Still, the house was not to blame for the actions of the man who had rented it as part of his elaborate scheme to con her into believing he was someone he was not.
She had fallen for Fletcher because he was everything she could have wanted in a man. He was attractive, he was smart, he was worldly, and best of all, he seemed to fall for her, finding her endlessly fascinating.
How could she not have wondered why a successful novelist would fall for someone like her?
Because you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Only this time, the horse turned out to be the Trojan Horse, and she fell head over heels for it.
There was nothing so sickening as realizing that the man she was in love with was someone else entirely, that he might just be a psychopath with an intricate revenge drama scripted for her.
She shook her head as if to shake the memory away. She was recovering from all that. She had gotten her life back on track, and she loved Marty. She did. She just wasn’t ready to get married.
When her phone rang, Pretty Boy reacted by flapping his wings and saying, “'Ello.”
It was dispatch.
Marty looked up from the pot he was stirring, and she rolled her eyes and pointed to the ceiling as if a higher power was calling, before turning away to take the call.