While she’d wanted to leave and resented some of the restrictions that came with living there, she’d never expected to be afraid of her own home. She’d been so close to Deputy Rand Smith on more than one occasion when she’d helped Sunny, or when he’d come farther up the trail to get someone. And she couldn’t help but wonder now if his trips all the way to the community had been for a different purpose, perhaps to touch base with an accomplice, someone who could be plotting new murders.
Tears stung her eyes every time she looked at Sunny. She hadn’t fully grasped until now how horrible it would have been never to see her again. Close on that thought followed the sting of grasping how deeply she’d felt betrayed over Sunny not returning to say good-bye.
Somewhere in the back of her mind she’d wondered if her sister had delayed returning on purpose, to keep her from leaving. Yet now that she looked back she saw what she should have known all along. Sunny wasn’t passive-aggressive. Sunny met life head-on. She’d been out there stranded in a snowstorm, with a mass murderer, and had come out alive.
With Flynn’s handsome face reflected in the rearview mirror, she could see from his jaw that he was still talking—even if she couldn’t hear him.
She nudged Sunny and signed for about the tenth time today. “What’s he saying?”
Sunny’s hands flew as she answered. “We need to check in with Flynn’s father, prepare him for the notifications about to come through.”
Misty kept her arms low, not wanting to draw attention to what they were discussing in case Flynn started watching in the rearview mirror. “What about Phoenix?”
Pain flashed across Sunny’s face. “We’ll talk to him. Then we have to wait and see. I think he probably always knew this day was coming. It’s up to him how to handle it.”
Nodding, Misty continued, “Do you trust this guy Wade?”
“Yes, I do, actually.”
“Even though you’ve barely known him a week?”
“He’s saved my life more than once, even today actually. He risked his own neck to pull me off my snow machine. I was so close to going over the edge of that cliff, no one in their right mind would have even tried. But he did. And after everything that’s happened this week, I’ve learned knowing someone a long time—like the deputy—doesn’t mean they’re trustworthy.”
Misty’s eyes slid to Flynn as if against her will. She’d known him for fifteen years and still she didn’t understand what happened four years ago. And yet the past couple of days, he had been the man she knew, remembered.
Sunny ducked into her line of sight. Her sister signed, “Why are you with Flynn?”
Misty sagged back against the seat. “Because he offered.” And she finally admitted the truth to herself. “Because I’ve missed him. And because today has made me realize how really rare second chances are.”
Her eyes slid back to the front seat even though that meant her world would go silent again without her sister signing the conversation. She wasn’t even close to getting over Flynn, but she was still just as committed to moving into the real world and having the cochlear implant surgery. She was committed to leaving the mountain. And now she had Sunny and her military friend to escort her out once they’d cleared away matters here. Flynn didn’t need to help her any longer.
He steered the truck round a jutting mound of boulders she recognized well, the final barrier shielding her village from anyone who may have wandered unwittingly into this remote corner of the world. The landscape opened up to her moonlit valley with a hundred buildings built alongside a small lake. So familiar. A place she could no longer call home. She’d said her good-byes, or so she’d thought.
Life had offered her a second chance here. A second chance for a last night to find closure with Flynn.
Wade paced in a circle around the open main floor of the log cabin that housed Sunny’s business. Well past midnight, they had finally arrived at Sunny’s home after meeting with Flynn Everett’s father, head of the town council.
The bottom floor was sectioned off into four areas, mirrors all around and a skylight above making the small place look larger. One corner held fitness equipment. By the door, there was a check-in counter with fresh muffins, granola, coffee, and a water dispenser. Tucked behind it were two computers and some toys and kiddie tables set up with books, paper, and crayons. And the remaining space—not much—appeared to be used for aerobics or martial arts with mats. A narrow corridor at the end of the room led deeper inside the building. Given his view of the outside before they’d entered, there must be some sort of loft space upstairs—her apartment perhaps?
Sunny flipped on a single light over the workout equipment in a corner and stopped beside him, wearing her own clothes now for the first time since he’d seen her the day they’d met. Purple jeans hugged her legs, and a bold red sweater fit every curve. She was a splash of color in the middle of an oatmeal-colored world.
She toed an itch on the back of her calf. “That hallway leads to a couple of bathrooms that double as locker rooms. Out the back door, there’s a natural hot springs pool. My apartment is upstairs.”
She didn’t just manage this place. Apparently she also owned it with her brother.
He was impressed.
This whole little community wasn’t at all what he’d envisioned for what appeared to be a town of no more than about a hundred and fifty people. It was much more organized and technological than he’d expected. When he met Flynn Everett’s father, he’d been able to use the town leader’s satellite phone to check in with McCabe. The conversation had been short and frustrating. Nothing new about the deputy, other than that he was from Oklahoma, deeply in debt, and moonlighting as a security guard at a power plant. There was nothing in his past to suggest he was a psychopath. Just flat broke.
McCabe had apologized for being abrupt, but he was heading into a brief about the security concern he’d mentioned earlier. Wade got the message. The defense issue with Russian intel leaks must have escalated. McCabe had quickly assured him the dog—Chewie—was recovering well. Wade had turned to tell Sunny.
But she’d disappeared and stayed gone for fifteen conspicuous minutes.
Wade walked along the dumbbell rack, shifting a twenty-pound weight that had been mistakenly placed in the twenty-five-pound slot. “What did your brother have to say?”
Sunny’s legs folded and she dropped onto an exercise bike seat. “How did you know? Never mind. I didn’t get to speak to him anyway.”
“Are you covering for him?” He leaned back against the weight rack, wishing they didn’t have all this crap between them and could just end the day the way he wanted. In bed with her, with him peeling the jeans off her legs.
“I realize you have plenty of reasons not to trust me, but all I know is that Astrid’s parents were at the house baby-sitting my nephew. They said Astrid and Phoenix had gone camping together.”
“Do you believe them?” Sounded too damn convenient to him that Phoenix would disappear right before the lid was about to blow off their private little village hideaway.
She shrugged. “They do that sometimes, go off together for time away from the stress of being new parents, enjoy back-to-nature kinds of meditation like they used to when they were dating. Yes, the timing seems coincidental, but the behavior is in keeping with something they would do.”
“And your brother, do you think he got a warning we were coming?”
“I sent that email,” she said carefully, resting a foot on a bike pedal, her red Converse high-tops as full of personality as she was. “He could have run, although I don’t believe he would have left his son behind.”
“And his wife went along too. I’m assuming she wouldn’t leave her child either. All the more reason to assume he hasn’t run. So why is he conveniently gone now? Something’s off.” He could sense it. “But still, I stick by my gut feeling that the wife—Astrid—isn’t on the run with her husband. Plenty of wives I know aren’t even willing to pack up and move to another state for even a job change. Your brother wouldn’t be offering a helluva lot of security.”
He knew he wasn’t talking about just her brother anymore. He’d seen more than his fair share of military relationships hit the skids because of a transfer. The crackle of connection snapping from Sunny to him said loud and clear that she was having the same thoughts, the same concerns.
He waited for her to answer, to give him some kind of indication where they could go from here. If they could. Tough to figure out when he knew so little about her and her family. He’d slept with her, faced death with her, and he didn’t even know the most fundamental things about her. And time was running out fast to learn.
Memories of the day and her brush with death came back to scare the hell out of him when he least expected it. He was pretty sure his insides were still a little numbed out about that.
“Where did you live before going off-the-grid?” Why hadn’t he thought to ask that before? Had he been holding back too?
“On a farm in Iowa.” She spun the bike pedal with her toe. “We grew corn and soybeans. The land was in the family for a couple hundred years. The farm barely paid for itself, but Dad had a store too, and Mom worked at a bank in town. They said moving here was the perfect way to get their priorities back in order.”
“And your brother?”
“They wanted to help him. I was twelve at the time and I didn’t ask a lot of questions.” She looked around the small business she’d managed to build in the middle of nowhere as if seeing it with new eyes. “Maybe I should have.”
They’d cut their two daughters off from the ability to ask questions or reach out for any help, any other way of thinking. The place might not call itself a cult, but unquestionably there had been a closed society, cultish mentality at play.
Was Sunny even able to just break away from that? Sure she’d been scared of him finding out about her brother when he first found her, but she hadn’t freaked out in the city when she was at his place. Looking back he knew now that she’d wanted to be at his apartment rather than base because of the intense proximity to the military. But she was comfortable enough there.
Seeing what she’d built here, with no help from the outside world, made him recognize how self-sufficient she was. What might she accomplish with the resources of the world he knew at hand?
He wasn’t ready to say all their obstacles were out of the way. But for tonight, it seemed he’d cleared away a few.
Above all, Sunny was alive. Thank God, she was still alive.
Wade extended an arm to her. “Let’s go up to your apartment.”
A spark lit in her eyes. “I can think of nothing better than forgetting about all the things we can’t change.” She placed her hand in his, her smile almost chasing away the shadows in her hazel eyes. “But I have a better idea than going to my apartment.”
Tugging him, she guided him toward the corridor, deeper down the hall, past the staircase leading to the second floor. Curious, he followed, his eyes gravitating to the sway of her hips, the swish of her ponytail, as she walked.
She unlocked and opened a door leading outside the log cabin. Turning, she clasped both his hands and pulled him out onto a huge deck overlooking… Holy crap.
The winding wood stairway with icicles led down to a bubbling pond of steaming waters. She’d told him the survival school sported a hot springs area, but he hadn’t envisioned anything like this. A privacy fence wrapped around, stopping at the slope of a mountain wall with a waterfall trickling down over two tiers of rock slab.
Sunny peeled off her sweater and tossed it over her shoulder onto the deck. Her ni**les went tight against her thin undershirt.