Kasey Phillips snapped off three more pictures of the country singer straddling seven hundred pounds of sleek American-made motorcycle. Cody Tuggle looked more rugged than the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains that swelled in the background.
At her command, Tuggle leaned forward across the wide chrome handlebars. Even with the bandanna tied around his head like a do-rag, a look she'd never found appealing, there was no denying this guy was sizzling hot and all man.
Kasey's eyes narrowed as she leaned to get a unique angle. The estate was the perfect setting for this magazine shoot. It belonged to Cody's agent, Arty Max. From the looks of the place, Tuggle's fame had paid off big for everyone.
Band members and roadies lined the perimeter, but she stayed focused on her subject. Curious onlookers were one of the biggest obstacles at an outdoor shoot, but it was easy to tune them out when the subject was someone with such star quality.
Working with the light and shadows, she repositioned to find the right interplay to intensify the image. The camera clicked at a fast clip, and then not at all, as she considered the next best opportunity.
Click. Click. Click-click-click.
"I thought this was supposed to be hard work," Cody said, pulling her out of her zone. "Those bikini models are always complaining about it on TV." Laughter laced his voice. "Y'know, that fanny duster job, dusting the sand off those cuties' hind ends. Now that looks like a right sweet gig. Got any connections?"
Kasey lowered her camera. "You mean, in case the singing thing doesn't work out for you?" She gave him a scolding look. As the mom of a three-year old, she'd pretty much perfected it. "If you keep talking I'll catch you with your mouth wide open, and you'll look dopey. Shhhsh."
"That must be why I always look drunk in those tabloids." Cody flashed a devilish smile. "Anybody ever tell you, you're kinda bossy?"
"I got both of those shots," she warned. "Those weekly gossip rags pay big bucks for celeb uglies. The uglier they are, the more they pay. They'd pay top dollar for those last two pictures."
"You're right." She raised her hand in front of her like a traffic cop. "Stay still. Yeah. Right there." A perfect shot. The candy-apple red Harley was only feet away from the black fence that surrounded the estate. Light swept through a stand of birch trees in the distance, their thin white-barked trunks made the colors appear more vibrant and crisp. The forest displayed a myriad of green shades now. Those leaves would boast orange, yellow, reds and purples in the fall as the chlorophyll faded and autumn arrived-an awesome display to capture on film.
Cody spoke to someone just behind her.
She shot him the look.
"What? It's hard to sit still this long and not say a word." Cody rewarded her with a natural smile. She took advantage of it, snapping the image.
Kasey enjoyed the gentle sparring. "What's the problem? You got ants in your pants? You said this modeling stuff was so easy, but all I've heard for the past thirty minutes is a bunch of girly complaining."
"Hey now, be nice. Girly? Me? You're gonna hurt my feelin's."
The roadies and band members nudged one another.
"Somehow I doubt that." Kasey watched the star's smile fade into an exaggerated pout. He might be used to women falling at his feet, but she wasn't one of his groupies. "Did I bruise your frail ego?" What a ham. "Maybe it's that silly rag on your head makin' you all girly."
She couldn't help herself. The man in front of her was huge, at least six foot four, with shoulders so broad the wide-set handlebars on the motorcycle didn't look nearly as impressive. This guy could wear a pink tutu and look masculine.
The band members and roadies seemed to enjoy the banter, but she wasn't sure whom they were rooting for-Cody or her.
Cody sat up straight on the bike, his smile gone. He pulled the bandanna off and ran his fingers through his flattened mass of blonde hair.
She took in a quick breath. Maybe that last comment had crossed a line. She knew the do-rag was symbolic to the band, but then if her jab got him to quit mugging around, it would be worth it. She'd get the best shots of the day.
His hair bounced back into its usual tangle of waves, softening his chiseled look. He stuffed the slip of fabric into his back pocket with a half grin, maybe just short of a smirk.
Kasey clicked like mad. "Now we're talking."
Cody tugged open the snaps of his western shirt.
She switched cameras and gave him a nod of encouragement. Tuggle's PR guys had left last night. She called the shots now. Just the way she liked it. This was all Cody.
His tan accentuated his chest. Flawless. He didn't have a soft, white-collar body. This was the body of a guy who enjoyed getting physical.
"Looking right manly now, Mr. Tuggle." Her heart and soul belonged to Nick, but staring at Cody Tuggle for hours at a time was no punishment.
"Mr. Tuggle? Why is it the less I'm wearin' the more business you get?" He stepped off the motorcycle in one easy movement and took a step in her direction.
"Quit it, you big flirt." She took another picture. "I'm married." She wiggled her ring finger in his direction.
Kasey glanced at her watch. It was almost nine. "Let's take five." She walked to a table nearby, pulled her phone from her hip and dialed home. Every day on the road, at nine o'clock sharp each morning, there was nothing more important than checking in with Nick and Jake. She loved her work, but they were the light of each day, and three days in a row of not being with them was torture.
With her back to Cody and the others, she talked to Nick. He caught her up on their plan for the day. She checked her watch again, then forced herself to wrap up the call. "Love, love, love you boys."
"I love you ten and five, Mom." Jake's tiny voice made her heart bubble. Ten and five was the biggest number in the world to him.
"Love you, babe. See you at the other end of the day," Nick said and hung up.
A familiar surge of happiness consumed her. She couldn't wait to be home with them. She and Nick had wed just a few months after they'd met. It was a marriage made in heaven, and Jake was the icing on the wedding cake. That little angel was the best thing she'd ever done in her life.
She snapped her phone shut and headed back to the shoot. "Let's go, guys."
Tuggle turned his attention back to her. "Call home to check in with Mr. Phillips?"
"Not exactly. Phillips is my maiden name." She switched to her digital camera for the final run. "But yes. I was checking in at home."
"That dude's one lucky guy."
Cody leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Two? I bet number one doesn't think much of that."
"Funny." She wrinkled her nose. "Husband and son."
"You had me worried there for a minute."
She lowered the camera. "Nick and Jake. Jake's three, and the most adorable child. Not that I'm biased."
"Got his momma's good looks, did he?" Cody smiled a perfect smile, the kind he wasn't good at performing on demand. "You know I'm just playing around, right?"
Kasey captured one last shot, ignoring the remark. "You're done." She lifted the camera strap over her head and wiped her palms on her jeans. "I've got what I need."
"I was just getting into it." He struck an Egyptian pose. Everyone howled and cheered.
"You're too much." She tucked the cameras into her case. "Give me a couple of hours and I'll let you and Arty take a look."
"Great. We'll be down at my guesthouse."
Over the past two days, she'd walked every path that wound through the estate. There were eight guesthouses in all. Each one named after a different star Arty Max represented. Over the years, he'd done quite well spotting raw talent and nurturing it to the ultimate reward.
* * * *
Kasey made short work of processing the morning shots. She'd driven her RV to this shoot. It was the best investment she'd ever made. Not only could she develop film the old-fashioned way when it was called for, but she had a computer system to edit and crop the digital shots on site, and high-quality print capabilities.
She gathered the proofs and went to meet with Cody and Arty. On her way, perfect orange and yellow rose blossoms caught her eye. Roses always made her think of her wedding day. One of her best memories ever, second only to the day she'd had Jake.
A light breeze pushed her hair across her shoulders. She lifted her chin to enjoy the warm sun on her face. The low eighties here in the mountains was a relief compared to the blazing heat at home on the Virginia coast in August.
Cody and Arty sat at a wrought iron table on the front porch of the guesthouse. Arty's wiry arms moved in wide, exaggerated movements. Cody sat back in his chair, twisting a cloth napkin between thick fingers, looking a little bored.
Kasey flipped the folder against her thigh as she walked within earshot. "Am I interrupting?"
Arty stopped mid-sentence.
Kasey's glance connected with Cody's just long enough to make her breathing stutter.
Cody jumped up and pulled a chair out for her. "Naw. Join us."
Kasey sat, hooking her feet around the legs of the chair, and placed the proofs on the table. "The extra morning shoot produced the best pictures."
Cody flipped through them. "Damn, you make me look pretty good."
"It was a really tough job." Kasey tried to look serious.
Arty made approving sounds as he looked through the pictures. When he finished, he tapped the folder on the table and leaned toward her. "These are incredible. No one has ever caught Cody on film like this."
"I'm glad you're pleased, Mr. Max. I enjoyed it." Kasey extended her hand and stood to her full height of five foot three. Standing, she was barely taller than Cody, and he was still sitting. "I'm heading home. I promised my boys I'd be there this afternoon."
"Wait." Arty bounced to his feet. "You have to shoot Cody's tour. I've been after him for two years to do a tour picture book."
Cody turned from Arty to face Kasey. "It's true. He's relentless."
"It would sell millions." Arty shook a proof under Cody's nose. "Pictures like these could bring your tour to life in a book. You have to agree."
Cody looked at the proof for a moment. "Yeah. You know, you might be on to something there, man." He looked to Kasey and lowered his voice. "Help me out here, girl. Get him off my case. If you can do that, I'll owe you big." He pretended to beg.
"You're too funny." Kasey waved and turned to leave. "Thanks again."
Cody's chair screeched. "No, seriously. Wait. We want you." He stepped off the veranda to the walkway. "Come out on the road with us. I never liked the idea of some stranger hanging out with us, but you fit right in."
She froze, then turned back to face them. "You're serious?" The two of them looked like bobble-head dolls the way they nodded in unison.
This could be big. Huge. It could also mean fewer jobs on the road next year so she could spend more time with Jake and Nick. And it would keep her name out there, which was getting harder now that she'd cut back on the number of shoots she accepted. It was a tricky trade-off.
Her heart skipped a beat, but she managed to keep it in perspective. "No. I can't. I'm married and have a young son at home. I'm very selective about what I do these days. I'd be happy to refer someone."
"Naw, that wouldn't work." Cody shook his head.
Arty slumped and ran his hand through his hair.
"Tell ya what." Cody took a card from his wallet. "Call me if you change your mind. The tour doesn't gear up for a few weeks. You wouldn't have to be gone long. We'll email you the schedule. You can even pick the city dates you want to shoot."
"Cody, there are a hundred photographers who could do this gig." She laughed. "And a million single women who'd kill for it."
"This isn't a come-on, if that's what you think. I'm not the horn-dog the gossip rags make me out to be."
She knew better than to believe everything in the tabloids, but it was hard not to believe some of it. Eyeing him cautiously, she said, "I don't like to be away from Nick and Jake for that long. This kind of commitment takes time."
"Bring them with you. I'll cover their expenses, too." He looked flustered. "I'm serious. I respect you. I'm comfortable with you, so are the guys, and you're hell with a camera. I'll do that project with you, but no one else."
She took the card and rubbed her thumb across the raised letters. Four years ago she would've packed up and hit the road, but her life was different now.
"Thank you. I'll think about it, but changing my mind would be a first, because I never do." She waved as she left.
"Never say never," he called after her.
Kasey knew her best friend, Riley, would be giving her the same speech right about now if she'd been there.
Never say never, and never tempt fate.
Usually the ride home seemed longer than the ride to a location shoot, but today, as Kasey sang to the radio, the time passed as fast as the trees in her rear view mirror. It was hard to keep from speeding when she was anxious to get home. She eased up on the accelerator, coasting back to the speed limit.
Her mind drifted back to the idea of photographing Cody Tuggle's tour. The exposure would be good. Experience told her that she could probably get all the shots she needed in a few dates in key cities if she planned it right. She and Nick hadtalked about taking Jake to Sea World this year. Maybe we could turn this opportunity into a work vacation combo. It was worthy of a discussion.
"Making memories." Just saying Nick's favorite words made her smile, and she loved making them with him.
On autopilot, she turned down the lane that led home. The road to the Rocking R Farm ran parallel to their property. With road frontage of over a mile, she couldn't see their farmhouse until she got past the second curve.
Nick's truck wasn't there. Disappointment swept over her as she pulled into the driveway.
She grabbed her bags and headed for the house. On a bright note, maybe she had time to whip up a quick surprise for them now. It wouldn't take but a minute to throw some of those pre-formed chocolate chip cookies on a tray and get them in the oven. Even she could pull off that level of baking.
Dutch, their black lab, greeted her with a yawn but didn't bother to get up from the living room rug. She dropped her bags right in the middle of the hall and tossed her purse on the couch. She dashed to the kitchen to get started on the treats, patting Dutch on the head as she zipped by.
Just as she slid the cookie sheet into the oven, she heard a vehicle pull into the driveway.
"Perfect timing." She set the timer to reduce the chance she'd ruin the cookies. Not that it was any guarantee. She'd burned so many meals Jake thought the smoke alarm was the dinner bell. He and Nick never let her live that down, but it hadn't improved her cooking any.
"C'mon boy. I'm excited, too." She hurdled the suitcase she'd left in the middle of the foyer and opened the door.
"Oh!" Kasey halted, nose to nose with a stranger in her doorway. "Excuse me." She took a step back.
A man in a suit stared at her with his hand still in the air, mid-knock. "Mrs. Rolly?"
"Kasey Phillips, but yes, I'm Mrs. Rolly." She looked over the man's shoulder. Only a blue sedan. No sign of Nick's truck. "I was expecting.... Never mind. Can I help you?"
Dutch pushed his nose between the door and the jamb, imposing himself between the stranger and Kasey.
"I'm Officer Thomas with the Virginia Beach Police Department." The man handed her his business card, then flashed a police badge. "May I come in?"
"It's okay, boy. Dutch, go lie down." Kasey read the card. "Of course. What can I do for you?" She glanced at the card again. "Officer Thomas." She motioned him into the living room.
He stepped inside, but remained standing.
Kasey gripped the arm of the chair and lowered herself into it. "Is something wrong?"
"Are you the wife of Nicholas Rolly?"
Anxiety bit at Kasey's nerves. She couldn't even nod. "Yes," she answered, but it sounded more like a question.
"I'm sorry, ma'am." He paused, his eyes avoiding hers. "There's been an accident."
"An accident?" She leaned forward. Icy fear prickled her skin. This only happens in the movies.
"Yes ma'am." Officer Thomas shifted his weight from one leg to the other. "At about 11:15 this morning we received an accident report of a truck going off the road into the river, and a separate report of gunshots on Route 58. We aren't certain if the two are connected."
The words replayed in her mind. Slowly, like translating a foreign language, then a wave of concern consumed her.
"I'm sorry to deliver this news."
Kasey grabbed the arm of the chair. The room swirled around her. "He's going to be okay, right?"
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Rolly. Your husband didn't survive the crash."
"No. It can't...Nick?" Her heart pounded too fast, and her brain buffered everything around her.
"His body is at Southeastern Virginia Medical Center. Investigations are still underway to determine the cause of the accident."
She swallowed with difficulty, then found her voice. "What about Jake?"
His brows flickered a little. He looked uncertain as he tapped the keys on an electronic device for information. "There were no other passengers -"
From that point, the officer's lips moved, but his words didn't register. "No. My Nick wasn't alone. You've made a mistake." She raised her hand to quiet him. "Where's my son? This doesn't make sense. Where did you say they were?"
"Traveling east on Route 58, not far from I-95 and Emporia. The vehicle, the registration and ID all match."
She rubbed her palms against her jeans and let out a long breath.
"My husband was on the Eastern Shore this morning, and he had Jake with him. It can't be him." She twisted her wedding rings, letting them glide up and down her finger. "Thank God," she whispered into folded hands.
His tone was apologetic. "We're careful with this information."
"No." She hugged her arms to her. "It can't be. Not on Route 58. That's too far out of the way." She pushed her shaking hands into her lap and took a deep breath. "I'm telling you there's been a mistake. Nick's an excellent driver. He's very careful. And he'd never leave without Jake. They're fine." Kasey moved to the edge of the seat. "I just spoke to him this morning."
"When did you expect him back?"
Stress lined the man's face. She forced herself to look away.
"We just talked at nine this morning. I was on a photo shoot." She chewed on her bottom lip. "I expected they'd be here when I got home."
"I'm sorry. I'll connect you with the officer in charge of the case for details. Meanwhile, I can offer you a ride to identify the body."
She recoiled. "Identify? No, I'm not going anywhere with you."
He paused. "Is there someone I can call for you?"
She glared at the officer. "Nick. You can call Nick, because this is a mistake. He's fine. Do you hear me?" Kasey snapped her head up, meeting the officer eye to eye. She gathered her composure and stood. "I don't need comforting. They are just fine." She went to the front window and pushed the curtains to the side. The country lane was empty. "Officer Thomas, I think you should leave."
"Ma'am?" He called after her as she stepped from the front window toward the hall.
She spun around. "I know you're doing your job, but this time you're wrong. Nick wouldn't have been on Route 58, and he wouldn't have been alone. I'm telling you there is a mistake. Why aren't you listening to me?" Kasey grabbed her cell phone from her handbag, punched speed dial to Nick's cell and waited for him to answer. "I'm calling him." She redirected her stare at the officer as the first ring sounded on the other end.
Officer Thomas held her gaze.
The phone rang a third time-no answer.
The room shrank around her. A loud hum filtered the sound from the phone. Her heart beat so hard it constricted her breathing. Nick always answered his cell phone. Even when he was on the tractor he put it on vibrate. There had never been a time she'd dialed his number since the day they'd met that he hadn't answered.
"Voice mail." She mouthed the words, and her jaw went slack.
Officer Thomas must have predicted the next move because he was already at her side, to steady her, as her knees gave way. He reached for the phone as she shouted into it.
"Nick. Nick, it's me. Where are you, honey? Why aren't you answering? Please?" She knelt or fell. She wasn't sure which. "Oh. God. No."
Officer Thomas caught the phone mid-air as it fell from her hand.
"Who can I contact? A family member? A friend?" He released her as she settled back into the chair. He closed the phone and placed it on the table. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Rolly."
"How can this be happening? Where's Jake?" Kasey pulled her hands to her chest. She opened and closed her fists, as if to pump her lungs to make herself breathe. "Why is this happening to me?" She glanced at the clock on the wall. It showed 4:11, like 4-1-1 for information. This was information she wished she wasn't getting. She slumped forward as reality struck, clutching her heart, tears streaming down her cheek.
The buzz of the oven timer broke the silence in the room.
Thankful for a reason to flee the room, Kasey shot straight up in her chair, then to her feet to escape this man and his message.
She punched the buzzer on the oven to silence it. The smell of the warm chocolate chip cookies only made her cry more as she slid the metal baking sheet on top of the stove. She leaned forward on the kitchen counter, breathing in the smell of better memories, hoping to push the terror out of her mind. If she had come home yesterday as originally planned, would this be happening right now?
Kasey edged toward the doorway to the living room praying it would be empty, and that she'd imagined all of it. If Nick and Jake were gone, she prayed God would take her, too. She pulled her shirt tight across the front of her, suddenly chilled despite the hot August temperatures.
"Mrs. Rolly, who do you want me to contact?" Officer Thomas opened her cell phone and clicked through the directory. "You have numbers for Grandma Emily, Riley Randals, Dean Zander...."
He didn't mention Nick, though she knew there were entries for him at home, at the barn and for his cell. Her chest burned. A moan escaped as she choked while trying to gulp air. Tears streamed along her cheeks and settled in her fists. Kasey opened her hands and rubbed her fingers across her eyes.
"Riley." Her voice strained. "Call Riley."
Officer Thomas punched keys on the phone and headed to the hallway. Kasey heard him ask for Riley, overheard him explain the situation, and then the phone snapped closed.
"She's on her way, Mrs. Rolly. I'll stay with you until she arrives."
"Thank you. She's just up the street." Why was she being polite? Thank you? She wasn't thankful for him at all. This man had just unraveled her world. She lowered her head to avoid looking at him. She couldn't bear it. "Jake. Where are you, baby?"
The front door burst open without a knock. Kasey jumped to her feet, wishing for Nick to saunter through the front door with Jake on his hip to set everything right again. The spark of hope vanished.
"Kasey?" Riley raced to Kasey's side and held her. "I'm here. What happened?"
Kasey's voice trembled. "I don't know. I can't really.... He was shot in a car crash?" She ran her hand across her nose and tear-stained cheeks. "I don't know. It's some kind of mistake. You've got to help me." She turned into Riley's arms.
"Shot in a car crash? Which was it? He was shot, or in a car crash?" Riley asked Kasey, and looked to the officer for help.
"I...I don't...." She slumped forward, releasing control into Riley's capable hands.
Riley wrapped her arms around Kasey, and then directed her gaze to the officer. "Thank you for calling me. What exactly happened?"
"When police arrived on the scene, Mr. Rolly's vehicle was in the river. Witnesses heard a loud series of shots just before the vehicle swerved off the road, making impact with several trees. The truck flipped, then careened into the river below. It was clear the driver...." Officer Thomas took a deep breath. "He didn't survive. Investigations are under way to determine the chain of events."
"Shots fired?" Riley pressed her hand over her heart. "And Jake? What about Jake?"
"No one else was in the truck, ma'am."
Kasey's tears flowed, but her voice was strong and steady. "We have to find him." She grabbed for Riley's arm, her eyes pleading for one shred of hope.
"Jake's her son. He's three." Riley pointed to the picture on the table of Nick and Jake.
"There was no sign of a car seat to suggest a child was in the vehicle at the time of impact. Could he be at a sitter's, or with a family member?"
"Oh, my God, my baby. Where is he?" Kasey cried into her fists. "This can't be happening."
"We'll find him." Riley turned to face the officer. "Nick never leaves Jake behind."
"I'll call it in to the investigating team right now." He turned his back and made a call.
The room fell silent except for the sound of the policeman talking to the investigating unit.
The loss hung heavy.
Officer Thomas approached them. "They have the information. They're stepping up a search for your son."
"My husband is an investigator," Riley explained. "You might know him. Perry Von? Who can he call to get all the details?"
The officer took a business card from his chest pocket and scribbled some information on the back. "I'll be happy to assist in any way. We're going to need someone to identify the body." He extended the card to Riley. "This is the name of the lead officer. I'm really sorry for your loss."
"Me too." Riley's voice quivered. "Me too." She licked her dry lips."My husband will identify the body for her." Riley turned to the officer. "I heard something on the news about some shots on that stretch of road a few weeks back."
He nodded and said, "An older couple from here in Virginia Beach. They were shaken up, but no injuries."
"That's the one. Was this in that same area? Do you think there's a connection?" asked Riley.
"It's early in the investigation. I'd hate to speculate."
"I understand. I guess living with an investigator rubs off on you." Riley flipped the card in her hands.
She showed the officer to the door.
Kasey rocked, hands to chest, eyes closed-praying.
Her words came out just above a whisper. "Please, please, Lord, don't do this. I need Nick." Her breath caught, choked by the tears. "Where's my Jake?" She swept the tears away with trembling fingers.
Riley knelt beside her. "I'm calling your grandmother. I bet Nick left Jake with her." She stroked Kasey's back. "Breathe, honey. I'm right here," she said as she dialed. On the fifth ring, the old woman picked up the phone. "Hi, Grandma Emily. It's me, Riley. I expected Jeremy to answer."
"He's got the day off. Again," Grandma Emily complained. "Good to hear from you. When are you coming to visit? It's been too long, dear."
"I know. I need to get over there. It's overdue, I know. By the way, is Jake spending the day with you? I have something for him."
"No? Why would you think that?"
"Oh, you know me. I must've gotten the dates confused. Sorry to bother you," Riley said as she disconnected the call and rushed back to Kasey's side. "Where else could Jake be? He's not with your grandmother. I didn't tell her about Nick. I figured that could wait."
Kasey shook her head and stared off. "I don't know. Nick never leaves Jake behind. You know that."
"I know, but he has to be somewhere."
"Jake was with Nick when I talked to them at nine. Nick would never lie to me. He wouldn't. There is no other explanation."
"But there was no car seat." Riley moved in closer to Kasey. "You know how cautious Nick is. He'd never have Jake in the truck without the car seat."
"Maybe it came loose. I don't know, but what I do know is that Jake needs me. I can't explain it, but I can feel it. We've got to get out there."
"Do you think that's a good idea? Detectives are working the scene. I'll have Von get in the loop and make sure they're doing everything possible to find Jake in case he's out there."
Kasey drew on inner strength. "I need to be there. I have an eye for detail. I might see something they didn't. I have to find Jake." She ran her sleeve across her face to dry her eyes, then grabbed the keys out of her purse.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm not going to just sit here." Kasey stood, her chin held high. "I'm going to find my son."
Riley got her phone out of her purse. "You're in no shape to drive. Neither am I. I'm calling Von. He'll take us."
* * * *
Perry Von jumped in his truck and headed to Nick and Kasey's house, less than a mile away. Riley had given him the information she had, and he'd called the lead officer on the case as he drove. They didn't have much more to share at this point.
The news echoed in his thoughts. He and Nick had been childhood friends. Losing him was like losing a brother, and it tore at his gut. He knew what Kasey was getting ready to face. Deidre's murder was ten years in the past, and his life had moved on, but the blow of that loss still held power. His focus needed to be on Kasey.
Before he could remove the key from the ignition, Riley and Kasey took the porch steps two at a time toward him. Riley jumped in the front seat and leaned in to give him a kiss as Kasey climbed into the back.
"Kasey. I can't believe it. I'm so sorry." He reached over the seat and gave her hand a squeeze.
"Me, either." Kasey slapped the back of his seat. "Don't worry about me. Just drive. Quick. Jake needs us. This can't be happening." She secured her seatbelt. "Hurry!"
They rode in silence to the scene of the accident nearly eighty miles away. With just ten miles to go, traffic came to a complete stop on Route 58.
Kasey clutched the seatbelt in anticipation. "Can we walk?"
"I'll get off here and take the side road," Von said as he whipped the SUV onto the grass to get to the next exit. He sped down the single lane road and then got back on the interstate closer to their destination, then drove on the shoulder the rest of the way to the scene. He parked his red Yukon behind the row of police and rescue vehicles.
Blue lights bounced across the lanes, bright against the dimming day. Flares kept the small trickle of traffic from the local roads off to the far lane. Officers waved on the rubberneckers in an attempt to keep the traffic moving past the yellow tape that marked off the section of road before the overpass that spanned the Nottoway River.
Kasey jumped from the backseat and ran for the railing with her camera in hand. A police officer caught her by the arm. Her body swung past him, then recoiled like a bungee. She tugged hard, trying to free herself from his grip. Von ran up behind her. He wrapped his arms around her to calm her.
Von said to the officer, "She's the victim's wife."
The officer took a step back. "I'm sorry. I can't let you get any closer than this for now. You'll have to stay behind the marked area, and I'll need some identification." He waved to another officer, who hustled over to his side carrying a clipboard.
Von gave the man their identification.
Kasey stepped toward the whipping tape. She clutched her hands near her heart and peered over the guardrail. The water rushed and sloshed against the truck in the middle of the rocky bed.
Her heart seized when she caught sight of the one-of-a-kind farm sticker on the back window. It was definitely Nick's truck.
She lifted her camera and clicked off several pictures. Through the camera's lens, she'd see things later that she couldn't absorb now. She snapped another picture then let the camera swing from the strap around her neck. Is this camera all I have left? Nick, Jake, what more could I lose? This can't be happening. It wouldn't be fair.
Von reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze.
She noticed something dipping in and out of the water near the truck. She lifted her camera to snap a picture, then turned back into Von's arms, pointing to Nick's ball cap bobbing in the water.
Riley ran to them and wrapped her arms around Kasey, too.
The truck was in bad shape. It was little wonder anyone could have survived that crash. The big truck sat twisted, cocked to one side, half-covered by the rushing current. Several trees were injured witnesses. Oaks and pines, with fresh wounds that shredded their bark, recorded the path the truck had taken off the road and into the water.
The smell of fresh pine burned Kasey's nose. She dropped to her knees and snapped more pictures. The lights of the emergency vehicles bounced around the terrain.
It looked like Officer Thomas's call had expanded the team to find Jake. Kasey leveled her camera on two divers as they marked off a grid in the water. A land and water grid search ensued to find her son. Men and women, some in uniforms, others in jeans, combed the edges of the waterway. Please find him on land. In the water, that would be...no, that can't be an option.
Officers and volunteer firefighters fanned out into the woods.
Had the car seat been thrown from the truck? Swept away by the current? Did Jake crawl to safety? He could. He's a tough little boy.
So many questions. So much to process. So much going on.
She clung to her camera, not sure what to pray for first.
Kasey watched as almost fifty volunteers gave up their Saturday night to search for Jake, walking, step-by-step in unison, through the thick swampy underbrush and vines.
Please let him be safe.
Men erected huge generator-run work lights to enable the team to continue the investigation in the dark, if needed. A tropical storm was supposed to push through on Monday. With Saturday nearly gone, they were running out of time and time was precious in these first few hours.
They wouldn't let Kasey into the woods. It was numbing to stand by. Helpless. Clinging to the camera brought comfort, but she only took a few pictures. She lowered herself to the curb praying for news-whispering promises to God, and anyone else who might matter, that she'd do anything in exchange for Jake's safe return. Nick was gone. She couldn't process that now. Not with Jake missing.
Please don't take Jake, too.
Voices rose and people gathered near the bright yellow tape at the tree line.
Kasey grabbed Riley's arm. "Please let it be good news."
Von sprinted toward the commotion.
Kasey and Riley clung to one another in hope.
Von joined the small group of men.
The minutes ticked by as they waited.
Kasey and Riley jumped to their feet when they saw Von heading in their direction.
"Anything?" Kasey pleaded.
"It's all hands on deck. Even the neighboring counties have sent in their best to help," Von said, trying to reassure her. "They found shell casings. They could be connected to the accident. There were also marks in the mud on the bank but it's hard to know what made them." He grabbed for his hat as a gust of wind lifted the bill. "The wind is picking up." He tugged it lower on his head.
Kasey spun away.
Von put his hand on her shoulder. "It takes time, and with the storm coming, they don't have much of it. They're collecting everything in the grid to insure no evidence is overlooked."
"Jake!" Kasey screamed into the woods. "It's okay. Where are you?" Her whole body trembled as she choked on the words.
Von stepped behind her. "It's getting late. Let's get you home. They'll call us if something turns up."
"I'm not leaving." Kasey folded her arms across her chest. "He's out there. He needs me."
Von and Riley exchanged a glance. Von moved closer to Kasey. "Things are going to go even slower as it gets darker. You need your rest to keep up your strength."
"Jake!" She shouted over the rail. "Jake, where are you? It's Mommy." Tears blinded her and choked her voice. "Jake. I'm here." The plea carried across the riverbank.
Men paused and heads turned in her direction.
Riley wrapped her arms around Kasey. "Come on, honey."
"I can't leave him." Her voice faded to a hushed stillness.
"We'll come back first thing in the morning."
Von guided Kasey and Riley to the truck. "Once they finish collecting the evidence you'll be able to get closer. They've put an Amber alert out, too. He'll turn up."
Kasey followed blindly a few steps, and then stopped. "No. I can't. You go. I'll be fine."
Von stepped closer. "Kasey, it would help if we knew what Jake's wearing. If I take you home, do you think you can sort through his clothes and figure it out?"
"And a picture. They'd like to put a report in the paper and on the news to see if anyone has seen him."
"He's alive. I know he is," she said again.
Riley held Kasey's hands. "This could help us find him faster."
Kasey tucked her hair behind her ear as she looked back over her shoulder. Von and Riley led her to the Yukon to head back home.
"Don't be afraid, baby," Kasey whispered into the dark as they drove away.
* * * *
Kasey froze in the doorway to Jake's bedroom. The familiar smell of his favorite fruit loop cereal overwhelmed her. The room was in disarray from the random attention that only a three-year-old could give to so many interests. On the floor, trucks and tractors corralled a herd of plastic horses and longhorn cattle alongside blocks and a superhero.
Jake's Spiderman shirt was on top of the dresser. She reached for it and held the worn cotton to her cheek. Nick probably had to scrape it off him to get him into something clean for their road trip this morning. The short-sleeve camouflage t-shirt, his second favorite, wasn't there. She sat in the middle of the toys with the Spiderman shirt in her lap. This was the world at Jake's level. It had to be so scary in the dark, in the woods. Her heart ached. She closed her eyes tight, hoping that when she opened them she'd see Jake sitting amongst the chaos with his tiny fingers curled around one of the action figures.
She dragged herself to her feet and walked back into the harsh reality with Jake's shirt clutched to her chest. The late night show echoed in the room around her. The shutters slammed against the house as Von secured the old home for the storm.
"The wind is really kicking up out there," Von said as he stepped back inside and pushed the front door closed behind him.
Kasey told Von what she thought Jake was wearing and gave him a picture they could use. He gave her a hug for reassurance, kissed Riley goodbye, then left to take the information and picture back to the police and identify the body.
Riley walked Von to the door. "Are you going to be okay."
He pulled her close and whispered into her hair. "It's Nick's truck. It's just protocol, but I couldn't let Kasey go through that. It'll be bad enough for me. He was like my brother."
"I know. I love you, Von. Thanks for being here through all of this," Riley said.
He hugged her close. "I'll call after I check in up there."
"Be careful with the storm."
"I will. I'll stay up there if I have to. I know you girls will be safe here together." He squeezed her hand and left.
Riley waved one last time from the door as Von pulled away.
Kasey curled up on the couch next to Riley and cried into the sweet smell of Jake's shirt.
Riley held Kasey's hand. "We'll get through this. Somehow."
* * * *
A stiff-haired news anchor leaned into the camera to make his point about how serious the weather had become. School closings crawled across the screen in preparation for the dangerous storm.
Graphics from prior storms popped in time to the ominous music in the background. A swirling icon exploded across the television screen.
"The National Hurricane Center has upgraded Tropical Storm Ernesto to a hurricane. This storm is slogging north along the I-95 corridor dropping inches of rain in its wake. Flooding is the biggest concern. Meteorologist Wendy Raines will have an update after the next commercial break. Stay with us for up-to-the-minute coverage."
These newsy folks loved a good storm.
The storm headlined all three local channels along with the Rolly accident. Kasey hated that the weather might shift attention away from finding her son.
She sat forward and turned up the volume as Jake's picture filled the right side of the screen. That was fast. The local newscasters recounted the accident. A list describing Jake, right down to the camouflage t-shirt and his trigger thumb on his left hand, preceded requests for information that might give them a lead. Jake's wide smile and laughing blue eyes broke her heart again.
Kasey flipped from channel to channel, reliving the moment when that officer had shown up and given her the news for what seemed like the hundredth time. She wanted to be at the accident site-to at least do something besides wait.
I have the right to be there, don't I? It's my family-my tragedy, for God's sake.
An Amber alert had been broadcast, and she'd been ordered to sit tight until the FBI arrived in the morning.
Overnight Ernesto picked up significant wind speed. A dangerous category three, sustained winds were expected to increase with gusts over 130 miles per hour by later in the day.
Kasey watched the investigation unfold on the television between storm warnings. Von had gone back to the crash site. He called to give Kasey and Riley updates every couple of hours through the night-but minutes slinked by. They hadn't heard anything in a while.
Ernesto was relentless in his path of destruction. Once the full brunt of the storm hit, there'd be no way anyone could search for Jake. Precious evidence would wash away under Ernesto's powerful force.
Kasey drifted in and out of a restless sleep, arousing to the familiar sound of her son's name. She'd slept but hadn't rested. She sat up to listen again to what she'd already memorized. No changes, but then she expected that. Loneliness consumed her. How can I face this without Nick by my side?
Riley came from the kitchen with juice. "Here girl. You need to keep your strength up."
Kasey took a sip from the glass and placed it on the table. "I hoped I'd wake up to find this was all a bad dream. Nothing new?"
"Afraid not. The Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team will be here soon."
"I know." Kasey dropped her head into her hands. then pushed herself to her feet. She forced herself to get up and go out to the front porch. She sat on the steps. The rain pounded on the metal roof. A toy car lay abandoned nearby. Kasey picked it up and pushed it back and forth. The wooden deck was scarred from the many hours Jake had raced his cars along these planks.
Two dark nondescript sedans filed into the driveway. She squeezed the tiny car into her palm. Her nails pinched into her skin as she pushed against the handrail to stand.
Riley burst through the screen door and stood behind Kasey, one arm wrapped around her friend's shoulders.
"Please, Lord, give me the strength." Kasey grabbed Riley's hand. "This is too much."
"It's okay. They'll help us. That's why they're here."
The southeast region specialists from the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team, better known as CARD, blew in with as much gusto as Ernesto. They gathered their information with an eagerness that left Kasey dazed and exhausted. The questions from the team were so in-depth that she began to doubt her ability to answer the easiest of them about her own family. Now the big guns were involved. Their special workforce had been successful in a high percentage of cases similar to this.
Riley escorted the last of the federal agents out the door less than an hour after they'd arrived.
"Lord." Riley leaned back against the closed door. "That's way more difficult than they make it look on television."
"You're telling me." Kasey tucked her feet underneath her on the couch.
The phone rang again, and it felt like each ring sucked a little more life out of her.
"I've got it. Don't move." Riley ran to the kitchen to answer the phone. She'd been fielding calls all morning. There were twice as many from concerned friends and media than updates from Von and the police.
Kasey sprawled out on the couch and pulled a pillow over her head. Thank goodness Riley was there to field the calls. Kasey couldn't bear to give any more reality to this situation. If she kept it to herself, maybe it would all go away and Nick and Jake would be back.
Dutch pushed the pillow off her face, nudged his wet nose into the crook of her neck, then licked away her tears.
"Kasey!" Riley lunged into the room with the phone in her hand. "It's Von. They've found the car seat."
Kasey jumped to her feet and ran to Riley's side. "Jake? Did they find him?" She wrapped her hands around Riley's arm and tipped her head toward the phone, struggling to hear the conversation.
Riley took down the details then hung up the phone. "They recovered a car seat downstream. It's Jake's. That State Fair belt buckle of Nick's is still hanging from the bracket."
"He has to be nearby. Come on. We've got to be there when they find him."
"Not so fast. They don't know anything more yet. Von will keep us posted." Riley led Kasey back to the couch and sat down next to her. "The best thing we can do right now is remain calm and let them do their jobs."
Kasey buried her trembling fingers in her hair. Her heart ached for Nick and worried for Jake. "I'll never make it through this."
Sheriff Scott Calvin took the information from the lead officer at the accident site and ran to his car. He'd worked in this county before he became Sheriff of nearby Adams Grove, so when he'd heard about the accident he'd wasted no time volunteering to help.
The tip was from Penny's Candy and Soda Shoppe. The popular stop for folks traveling this stretch of highway was located just down the road from the scene of the accident.
Bells tinkled when he opened the door. He crossed the shiny black-and-white tiled floor and slid onto the stool at the end of the counter.
Penny smiled when she saw him. "Hey, stranger." She grabbed a glass and filled it with root beer. "On the house."
"You remembered." He raised the glass and took an exaggerated sip.
"Of course. How've you been? You haven't been down here in a while."
"I'm here about the accident," he said.
Penny leaned on the counter. "Heartbreaking," she said shaking her head. "I still can't believe it. They were in here, just before...." She pressed her lips together, and closed her eyes for a moment. "That poor woman."
"I know. They told me you have the security tape." He scrubbed the back of his neck. "If it proves that boy was with his dad, it's like he's vanished. There's not a sign of him out there yet."
Penny reached under the counter. "I remember the truck. Handsome guy. Cute little boy. I wouldn't forget them. Here it is." She handed Scott the tape. "If there's anything else I can do, let me know. Posters, whatever."
He took another sip of his soda, then picked up the tape and stood. "I will." He tossed a couple of dollars on the counter. "Thanks, Penny."
When Sheriff Calvin arrived back at the accident site, the swampy terrain had become slippery and dangerous. One of the rescue volunteers was on his way to the hospital with a possible broken leg. The river rose against the shoreline as the trees leaned over, slapping its surface with their branches. Blinding bands of rain from Hurricane Ernesto increased the risk and finally forced them to halt the search.
"I don't have a choice," the lead officer said to Sheriff Calvin.
Scott shook his head. "You don't. You can't risk any more lives." He knew this was a hard decision to make, but the risk of more loss of life was too high to ignore.
He watched as the lead officer went out and made the announcement. Soaked men and women reluctantly filed out of the woods. There was nothing more they could do until Ernesto finished his punishment, but it was hard for anyone to leave knowing there was a child unaccounted for.
The team was thinking two steps ahead. Thank goodness, because there wouldn't be much evidence left at the crash site except battered trees, and their story had already been told.
Scott helped pull together volunteers to work through the night in the safety of the precinct logging each piece of potential evidence from the bags of debris collected at the accident site. Even the smallest item could be critical in locating Jake Rolly. It was a slow and tedious process.
Ernesto pounded southeastern Virginia through the night, dumping over five inches of rain and toppling trees. Tens of thousands of residents lost power.
Damaging winds were a problem, but because Ernesto parked himself over the region, flooding had become the top concern. Rivers were expected to crest at new heights, and flash flood warnings crawled across the television screens of those who still had electricity.
By the end of day on Monday, the lead detective gave a public statement.
"We are continuing to examine the evidence and are determined to find Jake Rolly," he said on camera from the police department in Southampton County. "We've partnered with neighboring counties, but we need your help. Anyone who has information should contact their local authorities."
Assumptions and evidence nipped away at the corners. They would get to the root of what happened eventually. Tomorrow, as soon as the waters subsided, they'd canvas the neighboring shops and residents along Route 58. A small team would search the area one last time, but any evidence was lost to Ernesto.
Back in Pungo, Von worked his way out from Nick and Kasey's house, trying to reconstruct Nick's activities on the morning of the accident.
The clerk at the corner store nodded and bowed his head. "Yeah, I heard about the accident. Nick came in on Saturday. He's in here every Saturday."
Von knew that. Nick was a creature of habit. Always had been. "Was Jake with him?"
The clerk rubbed his moustache. "I can't be sure if the little guy was with him or not. It was so busy. I've got the security tapes though. Give me a minute and I'll get them for you."
The clerk disappeared behind a security door and came out with a tape.
"It's a start," Von said. "I appreciate it."
"Hey, anything I can do. Let me know."
Von hurried out of the store. He needed to leave now if he was going to make it on time. He'd offered to take care of all the arrangements for Kasey. Nick had pre-paid and planned his funeral years ago, so it was just a matter of following that plan. Von had an appointment in thirty minutes with the funeral home. It was the least he could do for her. Burying a spouse was a torture he wished on no one.
He remembered only too well how unpredictable grief was. How it swept in and took you right off your feet with no warning. Everyone gave him unsolicited advice on how to navigate it; they'd do the same to Kasey. She'd have to find her own way-in her own time. A lesson he'd learned the hard way.
The funeral director was helpful, and a lot smoother than when he'd had to go through it for Deidre. Of course, he'd been in a fog then.
With all the details finalized, Von headed home. Losing Nick brought on a familiar grief that burned in his chest like a raw, gaping wound. It was like reliving losing Deidre all over again. But if Jake was out there, the most important thing he could do for Nick was find his boy. That was all he could think about the whole ride home.
He walked into the house feeling tired and impatient. His specialized skills weren't getting him anywhere with this case. Maybe it was true that you shouldn't work on cases you were too close to. The video tape tucked in his pocket was the only glimmer of hope he had. He tossed his hat on his desk, and inserted the video surveillance into the player. The date stamp was blank. The clerk had warned him that the power had gone off that week and he hadn't reset the recorder yet. Von wasn't sure why he even bothered looking at the tape, except that any hope was better than none, and there were no other leads to follow.
Von rubbed his hand across his chin as he pressed the buttons on the remote, fast-forwarding, then rewinding, then pausing to analyze the less than perfect images as people came and went. The process was slow.
After numerous stops and starts, a familiar image caught his eye. He pressed the Pause button and moved closer to the screen.
Frame by frame, he watched his best friend push open the glass door. Nick was dressed in a camo t-shirt and a ball cap, with a junior version of himself clinging to his hand.
Von settled on the edge of his desk, rewound the tape, watched it again, and let it play out. He watched Nick and Jake walk to the counter and then leave the store together. He rewound the tape and played the scene again, and then again.
"This is too much."
It was bad enough Nick was gone, but no man could bear to think of a young boy like Jake in danger or hurt...or worse.
He bowed his head. The loss was like a steel weight, empty and cold in his gut.
"Damn it, Nick," Von said to the screen. "This isn't enough to go on." He pounded his fist on the desk. "Help me find him, man. Point me to a clue. Where is he?"
Von pitched the remote against the wall, then headed to his truck.
Over the past few days, Kasey's life had moved on without her having a say. She couldn't manage to make even the simplest decisions. Nick was gone. Jake had disappeared. She replayed the news and the chain of events that followed in her mind a thousand times, wishing for an answer. None of it made sense. Her faith in God wavered in the wake of the unimaginable string of events.
The morning of Nick's funeral, Kasey rode to the church in the limo, then sat in the chapel with Riley and Von and a hundred other people who had loved Nick. The names of people she knew escaped her, which was just as well, because she couldn't seem to get any words out. It was nearly too much to breathe, much less talk. She wasn't sure if she could speak even if she tried.
She could barely take a breath at the sight of the rose-colored wooden casket. Masses of colorful wreaths and sprays filled the front of the large chapel. It made the heavy casket appear to hover above a meadow of flowers. An enlarged copy of the black-and-white portrait of Nick, with Jake on his hip, was propped on an easel-the same picture she kept on her mantel. Her favorite.
The preacher stood at the front, speaking-saying something. It didn't matter what. She wasn't ready to listen to him.
God, you took Nick and left me behind. But why, if not to take care of our son? How could our sweet Jake disappear without a trace? How could you let this happen? Help me. Please, help me.
Sorrow hung heavy in the packed chapel.
How long had the preacher been talking? His words were meant to comfort, but they didn't. Each word felt like a knife cutting into her heart. If she could move her legs, she'd run right up the aisle and out the door. Away. As far away from the pain as she could get. But her legs weren't moving. She felt paralyzed, glued to the pew, wondering why she bothered to breathe. The alternative seemed more appealing right now, except she knew Jake needed her.
She'd find him.
She had to.
One by one, people came to the front of the chapel, stepping up to share their stories about Nick. It gnawed at her gut to share the moment, afraid her own precious memories would be lost in their voices. She looked in their direction, but through them, avoiding their memories-concentrating on anything but their words.
She nodded in an attempt to look appreciative. That was the best she could do.
The organist played The Wind Beneath My Wings. The first three notes took Kasey's breath away. There was no wind, no air. Her own wings had been clipped.
She'd been blessed to share a true love with Nick, a love that had come without effort. But now she felt cursed to have known that love. Alfred Lord Tennyson was a fool. It was not better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. If she hadn't loved Nick with every part of her being, she wouldn't be so devastated now.
"You okay?" Riley rubbed Kasey's arm.
"Numb," Kasey whispered.
There were so many people. Nick had been well-known, well-liked, for his many contributions to the community. She knew that, but the number of people here today overwhelmed her. She didn't want to share this private moment between her and Nick and God.
Kasey clutched a handkerchief between trembling fingers. No lace, no embroidery, just one of Nick's that she'd pulled out from a load of laundry he'd left in the dryer. A point they'd often debated. Nick would leave clothes in the dryer so long that the wrinkles baked in. She'd have to iron or rewash them, and she wasn't a fan of ironing. The hanky she held had been a wrinkled mess even before she'd balled it in her hand.
The funeral ended, and Riley wrapped her arm around Kasey. "It's time to move outside."
Kasey's hands shook. She grabbed Riley's arm and they left the church.
The sky was bright and the air warm. They rode in the black funeral sedan to the inescapable moment ahead.
Mourners crowded the cemetery, dressed in dark and muted colors. They seemed to move more slowly and more quietly than normal. Or maybe it was just Kasey's brain working slower, resistant to the changes in her life.
Riley and Von sat on either side of her, near Nick's casket.
The prayers were short and heartbreaking.
Each pallbearer tucked his boutonniere into the full spray of flowers that covered the coffin, then the crowds peeled away from the burial plot.
But Kasey couldn't leave-not yet. She stood and walked to the side of the coffin, slid her hands under the blanket of flowers, and laid her cheek on the smooth wood of the casket. Von and Riley came to her side as the others headed for their cars.
They would receive guests at the farmhouse. Kasey wasn't keen on the idea, but Nick would've wanted it that way.
"Kasey, honey." Riley tried to bring her attention to the present. "Do you recognize that man?" She pointed to their right.
Kasey lifted her gaze from the casket and turned to look.
A very tall man, dressed in black, walked toward them. He had one of his hands shoved deep in the pocket of his trousers, pulling his jacket aside and exposing his slim hip and long stride. Dark glasses rested on his perfect nose.
Even through the tears, Kasey recognized the silhouette. But it didn't make sense. It couldn't be. Her mind must be mixing images from the recent weeks.
She blinked and refocused.
It was him. Kasey grabbed Riley's hand and gave it a squeeze. "It's okay." She walked to meet him halfway.
He took both her hands in his-his were warm.
"You're in all of our prayers." Cody Tuggle's deep voice came out slow and calming.
"How did you know?"
"It's been all over the news."
"Why did you come?"
He looked at the ground, pushing the toe of his boot in the grass. "I just knew I needed to. It had to be devastating news to come home to."
"You didn't have to do that."
He placed his hand on her shoulder. "If there's anything I can do to help find Jake...or anything, let me know."
Her shoulders folded forward as she tried to drag in air, sobbing into her hands. Cody caught her by the elbow as her knees gave way. Riley ran toward them.
"I got her." Cody swept Kasey into his arms.
Riley pointed to where Von stood just thirty feet away next to a black limo. Cody nodded and carried Kasey to the car. Von opened the door, and Cody released her onto the soft leather of the back seat.
"Thank you." Kasey squinted against the glare of the sun as she peered out of the limo at Cody. "I'm so -"
"Shhhsh. Now who's talking too much?"
She gave him a half smile.
Von shut the door.
Cody extended his hand to Von. "Cody Tuggle. Kasey just finished a shoot with us the morning of the accident."
"Nice of you to come."
"Anything I can do?" Cody asked.
"I wish there was. She's trying to deal with the grief of losing Nick and the hope that we'll find her son. He was with Nick that morning, but there's still no sign of him." Von swallowed his own grief and shook Cody's hand again. "Thanks. Every friend helps at a time like this."
Before they'd left for the church this morning, Kasey had picked out three of Nick's ball caps to save from the hundreds he owned. Von had suggested that they put the rest in two small troughs on either side of the front door for folks to take when they came later that day if they wanted them. Kasey had liked that idea. She couldn't bear to throw the hats away.
The limo pulled into the driveway. Kasey flattened her sweating palms on her dress. Friends, family and acquaintances had already gathered at her house and spilled out onto the front lawn.
Kasey's heart fluttered. Most everyone milling about already had one of Von's hats in hand, and some of the men had them in their back pockets. Others folded them like a taco to get the curve on the bill just right. Nick had always done that, too. They clung to the caps, a connection to Nick.
Kasey walked from the limo to the front porch and stopped to look at the whiteboard Von had hung on the wall there. On it he had listed the chores required to keep Circle R Farm running for the next three months. The board was nearly filled with the names of neighbors, family and friends who had volunteered to help operate the farm.
"Thank you," Kasey said to no one in particular, overcome by the generosity and outreach of their friends. She was relieved that people with ranching and farm experience would keep Nick's dream alive over the next few months.
Kasey blew out a breath as she, Riley and Von entered the house. "What would I have done without you and Von? There is no way I could have-"
Riley stopped her. "Nick and Von were like brothers. Best friends, just like us. We love you, Kasey. My heart is breaking. I'd do anything to make this better for you. I just don't know what to say. What can I do?"
"Just be here with me."
They held hands. "I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere," Riley said.
Together they braved the endless stream of people, sharing their personal memories of Nick.
Nick as a 4-H leader...
Nick as a dad...
Nick as a farmer and rancher...
Nick as a veterinarian...
Nick as a guitar player...
Nick as the best darn barbequer around...
Nick as one hell of a hunter...
Nick, who always lived every moment to the fullest...
Nick, the ladies' man before he'd met her...
Nick as a steady friend who had never let anyone down...
"We are going to miss him."
Kasey flinched. Each kind remark seemed pierce her heart a little deeper. Nick. I miss you so much.
The events of the day were catching up to her. Her lips quivered, making it hard to smile. She really wanted to just be left alone.
Nodding continuously, she repeated, "Yes, he was a wonderful man. Thank you."
No one mentioned Jake.
It was too painful for anyone to even say his name. Most of them believed that he'd been swept away in the currents that day. She'd heard the whispers, but she knew better. Jake was out there, and he was wishing for her as hard as she was wishing to find him. She felt it in her heart and soul.
Someone brushed her elbow. Startled, she spun around.
"Jeremy. Sorry, I was off...somewhere." She reached up and hugged him. "Thank you for being here."
"It wasn't his time." Jeremy whispered into her hair as he held her. He stepped back and shoved his hands in his pockets with his shoulders slumped. "I'm here for you. Remember that."
She swallowed back the familiar pain. The last time she'd been at a funeral was when Granddaddy had died. That's when she'd met Jeremy. At the time she'd thought that was the worst day of her life, but it didn't even come in a close second to today.
Jeremy had been Granddaddy's trusted mechanic back then. A big deal, because Granddaddy wouldn't let just anyone touch his precious collection of antique cars.
"Where's Grem?" Kasey scanned the room, looking for Grandma Emily.
"She's in the front room holding court, wondering where you are. You know how she has to be the center of attention," Jeremy said with a smirk.
"She was never this bad when Granddaddy was alive." Even when Kasey had lived at the estate, Grem was more than Kasey could juggle without help. Grem ran off good help in record time. Granddaddy had provisioned for Jeremy to maintain his car collection following his death.
Kasey had become desperate after Grem ran off yet another companion. The local service was running out of candidates that specialized in elderly care to send her way. So Kasey sweetened the deal for Jeremy by offering him a live-in situation-complete with full use of the temperature-controlled garage bays on the back of the estate to work on his own antique car projects. In exchange, he'd tote Grandma Emily around and keep things in check on the property. Jeremy had jumped at the chance. He doted on Grandma like Granddaddy used to. Grem adored him.
Jeremy was like one of the family now, and his striking dark hair and blue eyes left many thinking he was related because he looked so much like Granddaddy. Probably one of the reasons Grem loves having him around.
"You ready to see the queen?" Jeremy asked, extending his arm.
Kasey managed a grin and took his arm. Grem sat in her wheelchair, next to the fireplace. Kasey crossed the room and hugged her.
Grem held Kasey's arm. "The carriage house is ready, but you should stay up at the house with me for a while, dear. You know, until you feel better."
"Thanks, but I'll be fine here."
Kasey stepped back. What was that for?
Jeremy must have sensed the mood, too, because he whisked Grandma Emily off to the side of the small group, turning her back to most of the folks, and whispered something to her.
Grem scowled. She slapped at the wheelchair but Jeremy kept pushing. "What are you doing? For goodness sakes." She twisted around toward Kasey. "Honey, this is no place for a lady to mourn." The old woman's lips pinched. Her too-red lipstick spidered among her wrinkles.
Kasey moved to her grandmother's side and knelt down. "Please don't make this harder than it already is."
Grem looked into Kasey's eyes. "Everything happens for a reason, my dear. Leave this hillbilly farm behind. Live your own dreams now."
Was this supposed to be a pep talk? The words hit Kasey like a slap. "Stop it, please." She glanced around and lowered her voice. "I'm sure you mean well, but this isn't helping." Suppressing her emotions, she stood and walked to the window. It wouldn't do any good to get upset with Grem.
Jeremy pushed the wheelchair next to Kasey. "She insisted," he mouthed, then shrugged, set the brake and headed for the door, probably for a cigarette.
Grem grasped Kasey's wrist with her cold bony hand. "Honey, you know I'm right. You're young. Your life is not over." She patted Kasey's arm.
"The dreams, the country, they were our dreams. Nick's and mine. I have absolutely no intention of leaving here. This is our home."
The truth was that this place was heartbreak at every turn, but she wouldn't admit that to Grem. Mixed feelings surged through her. One minute she wanted to embrace everything that Jake and Nick had ever touched. Then, a moment later, she wanted to hit the damn road, leave it all behind, and pretend this part of her life had never happened.
Riley stepped between them. "Beautiful service wasn't it, Miss Emily?"
"It was nice." Grem cleared her throat. "Kasey, darling, the photo of Nick and Jake at the service was lovely."
"Thank you," Kasey said, her voice tight. Sometimes it's so hard to be nice to her.
She reached for her copy of that photograph on the mantel. Nick and Jake both wore jeans and cowboy hats. The candid shot had captured them so well.
She remembered that day like yesterday. They'd gone to get ice cream at the Pungo Strawberry Festival when something photo-worthy caught her attention. Nick had turned to find her straggling behind-something that happened all the time.
"Where's Mommy? Crazy Mommy is clicking again." Nick had teased.
Jake had reached in her direction and yelled, "Click me, Mommy. Click me!"
And she had. As both her boys had reached toward her, calling her name.
That one moment. So special.
A lucky shot.
Tiny details in the image were the most special to her. The folded ball cap in Nick's back pocket and the scrape on Jake's elbow. Jake had insisted on trying to take one of the goats for a walk; but the goat had other ideas and was faster than Jake. He'd fallen. But that didn't slow him down. Jake jumped up, dusted himself off and finished the walk-bloody elbow and all. He'd never even shed a tear.
Grem's voice carried from a nearby group. "Kasey is my granddaughter. She is quite talented."
Come on, God. Give me a break here. Kasey walked over to her. "Grem, this isn't the time."
She shook her head. "Nonsense, dear. They love to hear about your work."
Grem continued on, telling them that Kasey would be moving home with her.
Kasey clenched her teeth.
The stunning old woman drew a crowd. She looked so sweet, vulnerable, until you got right up close and her fangs started to show.
Riley took control of the wheelchair. "Come on, Grandma. Jeremy is going to take you home." She wheeled her directly to the front door and out onto the porch. "I'm sure this has been a tough day for you."
"Oh." Grem looked taken aback. "Oh, yes. You're so right. You are such a doll, Riley. Yes. I should get back home. The excitement is not good for someone my age."
"There he is now." Riley gave Jeremy the don't-ask-questions-just-get-her-the-hell-out-of -here look. "Can you take her home?"
"Thank you, dear." Grem patted Riley's arm.
Jeremy helped her into the Mercedes and closed the door. "I don't know what gets into the old bird sometimes."
Riley rolled her eyes and shrugged.
Jeremy said, "I didn't get to say much to Kasey. Do they have any leads yet?"
"No. Not a one, but Von is keeping tabs on the investigation for us."
"Yeah. That's good. Will you call me if they hear anything, and if I can help?" Jeremy untwisted the wrapper on a butterscotch candy and popped it in his mouth. He dug in his pocket and handed two to Riley. "Here. Give one to Kasey to remind her I'm just a phone call away. Keep me posted, will you?"
Grem tooted the horn, and they both jumped.
"Never a dull moment," Riley said.
Jeremy hugged her, then jogged around to the driver's side of the car.
Riley held the butterscotch candies in her hand with her thumb as she waved goodbye. When they cleared the driveway, she went back inside.
"Is she gone?" Kasey asked as Riley came toward her.
"Mission accomplished." Riley handed Kasey the yellow wrapped butterscotch.
"Jeremy." Kasey took the candy and cracked a slight smile. "He's such a sweetheart."
"Yeah. He's taking her home. The cranky old bat. I can't believe he hasn't quit after all these years."
Kasey shrugged. "He's used to her moods. He earns every penny he makes, that's for sure."
A few hours later, the house finally began to empty.
Riley busied herself in the kitchen with a couple of neighbors. They must have opened and closed the freezer door twenty times as they stored away the food. So much food.
* * * *
The week after the funeral, the police in Southampton County contacted Kasey about the tape from Penny's Candy and Soda Shoppe. Finally, they had dated proof positive that Jake had been with Nick just moments before the crash.
The news made for a restless night for Kasey, but at least maybe now the police would keep looking for Jake. She'd been worried that they might give up. The combination of renewed hope and fear tugged at her. Even her dreams taunted her, twisting joyful reunions with tragic replays of the funeral. And all of the dreams ended in the woods. She opened her eyes to the sun streaming through a sliver of an opening between the curtains. Were the dreams a sign? Was there something in the woods that would help her find Jake? She'd heard of stranger ways of solving cases.
Dutch laid next to the bed. Kasey swung her feet around to the edge and sat up. She rubbed her feet on his soft coat. "Quiet, isn't it, buddy?"
She rolled her shoulders and rubbed her feet on Dutch's back. He groaned.
No more back rubs in my future. I'll miss your back rubs, Nick. You gave the best.
Kasey got up, put on jeans, hiking boots, and one of Nick's rodeo t-shirts. In a moment of clarity, she'd decided to go back to the crash site and see if anything came to her that might help her find Jake. Crazier things happened all the time-she had nothing to lose.
She went downstairs and left a note on the counter in case Riley came by.
An hour and a half later, Kasey pulled her car off on the soft shoulder near the accident site. She put her business card on the dash of her car in hopes it would be enough to keep anyone from towing it while she explored.
She stepped over the shiny new guardrail and followed the path of scarred trees that marked the path Nick's truck had taken down the embankment. The incline was steeper than it looked. She sidestepped her way down to the water's edge. Debris marked the high water line left from the storm.
If Jake had somehow climbed ashore, where would he have headed?
She squatted.From this level, Jake's level, she couldn't see the road.
He could've made it to shore if the water had been as low as it was today. She stepped out on the rocks. They were slick, but plenty big to walk on.
She stood in the center of the river on the large rock where Nick's truck had once lain crooked, its interior sucking up water like a sponge.
I probably cried enough tears last week to crest this river.
To her left was a large clearing. She walked back across the rocky waterway, climbed the sloping terrain, and headed to that area.
She snapped off a twig from a tree and poked at the brush in front of her as she walked. No sense stepping on a snoozing snake. "Where are you, Jake? Help me find you."
I'm not crazy.
After three hours of wandering the woods, she knew, crazy or not, that she couldn't stay out much longer. Mosquitoes had begun nibbling on her as if she was a buffet. She swatted at one buzzing around her head.
She hiked toward the highway noise to her car. Her legs ached and so did her heart.
The next morning, Jeremy stopped by. It was Wednesday-the day Grem got her hair done each week. He'd been stopping by every Wednesday since the accident. Kasey wasn't sure if it was Grem's idea or his, but she'd started to appreciate his visits.
Still in her nightshirt, Kasey opened the door. Dots of pink calamine lotion highlighted her itchy mosquito bites.
"What happened to you?" he asked.
"Promise not to laugh?"
Jeremy smiled. "Hell, no. If you're going to make me promise, it has to be funny." He followed her into the living room.
"Fine. I went back to the accident site to see if I could get a connection or idea about where I might find Jake."
He sat down in the chair across from her. "I wouldn't laugh about that. I know how you're hurting. I wish I could fix everything for you right now."
"You're so sweet. It was stupid, I know, but it seemed like it was worth a shot. Better than sitting here wondering."
A glazed look spread over his face.
"I've brought you down, too." She sat next to him. "I'm not very good company these days."
He patted her leg. "Don't be silly. It's just so hard for me to see you so sad."
"I just wish I knew. I've memorized every angle of the terrain near the accident, and I'm no closer to finding Jake. I'm running out of ideas. And to make matters worse, the police don't seem to have the same sense of urgency they had before." Tears slid to her chin. She swept them away with her sleeve. "I know he's alive. I know in here." She tapped her heart. "But I need a glimmer of hope that I'll find him."
"I'm so sorry." He pinched the bridge of his nose and sat silent for a moment. Then he lifted his head and looked her square in the eye. "I have an idea, but I'm not sure you're going to like it."
Kasey's eyes brightened. "Anything."
He started to speak, then paused. "Well." He cleared his throat, then scooched to the edge of his seat. "I know this gal. It's a long shot. She does tea-leaf readings."
She leaned back and rolled her eyes. "Oh, no. You know how I feel about that black magic. It's just tempting bad stuff to come your way. I don't think I could do that."
"No. It's not like that. Tasseography is a divine practice."
She grimaced. "Tassy-whatever-ography doesn't sound divine. It sounds scary."
"Just think about it." He shrugged. "The practice is based on meditation and stuff, so you probably need to believe and trust that it will work. You said you'd do anything."
She wrinkled her nose. "I know, but I don't think I'm that desperate. That's just...." She ran her hands up and down her arms to chase the nervous tingle that followed the thought of tempting fate with that sort of magic.
"The offer stands. If you change your mind, let me know. I'll set it up."
She was hesitant to even consider it. "You'd go with me?"
"Of course. Anything." His gaze pleaded with her.
"I'll think about it," Kasey said.
"You could ask if Jake's alive. Find out for sure, one way or the other. Maybe get a lead."
"I could ask specific questions like that?" She needed answers, but that magic stuff had always given her the heebie-jeebies. "If I only knew he was safe, it would be easier." She slouched, then shook her head. "No, I'm not ready for that. I have an aerial photographer going up tomorrow to search the area again. He's doing it as a favor. I'm going to photograph his plane for a print ad in exchange. Maybe something will turn up this time."
Jeremy looked at his watch. "I've got to go. Your grandmother will be a real pain in the ass if I pick her up late."
"Like she won't be anyway?"
"Be nice. She's not as bad as you think. She loves you." Jeremy gave her a hug, then left.
Kasey watched him back out of the driveway. The thought of somebody predicting her future or knowing her past sent a tingle down her spine, and not in a good way. Time was slipping away though, and the longer Jake was missing, the more likely it was she'd never find him. Some said it had already been too long.
Even Riley had asked if she wanted to consider a memorial for Jake if something didn't turn up soon.
Kasey couldn't-wouldn't-give up on Jake yet.
Kasey stared at the ceiling until the swirled plaster blurred, forming images-silhouettes of better times. She sprawled her leg across Nick's side of the bed. Empty and cool.
She'd promised herself she'd get out of bed today, but that had been yesterday, and today didn't seem as far away as tomorrow had seemed at the time she made that promise.
One month. Exactly one month today since she'd laid Nick to rest. Everyone said it would get easier with time, but how much time and how much easier?
Although the wounds were still tender, she knew in her heart she couldn't let time keep slipping by. Nick would hate that. He'd lived life to the fullest-never wasted a minute. She hadn't done a good job of either lately.
She sat upright on the edge of the bed and forced her feet to the ground. She held her arms out to the side to steady herself as she stood. Taking slow steps, she made her way to the bathroom and twisted the knobs on the shower.
She stepped out of her pajamas and into the shower, letting the gentle spray wash over her as she prayed for strength. She turned counter-clockwise, wishing that would rewind her life to happier times. The water began to run cool so she got out. Wrapped in a towel, she went back in the bedroom and sat at the antique dressing table. She hadn't put on makeup since the funeral, but it was a step, even if she was faking it, toward feeling better. She brushed her hair, then picked out something to wear.
Her favorite pair of khakis hung loose on her now. She cinched the waist tight with a belt. It would have to do.
The melancholy she'd woken up with slid away, now replaced by anger. Nick had given her a wonderful life and then abandoned her.
How could you leave me? You promised you'd always be here.
Kasey went downstairs and walked outside. She looked at the beautiful property, as if through Nick and Jake's eyes, and remembered each precious day, each moment. She wasn't alone. Dutch wandered around with her every step of the way, like a shadow. The old dog had loved those two Rolly boys as much as she did, and his eyes seemed sadder than normal. Every time she stopped, Dutch pushed his head under her hand. He needed the connection, too.
She went back inside with a plan, with Dutch at her heels. His nails clicked on the hardwood floors like seconds ticking by on a clock.
Kasey picked up the phone and dialed Grem to tell her she was coming by. She made the call short though, because Grem had a way of saying the wrong thing, and all she needed was an excuse to crawl back under the covers.
She wasn't going to give herself a way out today.
* * * *
It was a beautiful day for a drive. Kasey drove with the top down on the Porsche. She usually loved the wind in her hair and breathing in the air that rushed around the car as she sped along. She'd been known to sing at the top of her lungs without a care about who might hear. No radio and no singing today, though. She was going through the motions for Nick, but her heart wasn't in it.
She punched in the security code at the gates to her grandmother's estate, then idled between the flowering crepe myrtles that dotted the path to the big house. When she reached the end of the driveway, she caught sight of Grem on the porch, waving at her.
Kasey waved and parked in front. The old Porsche had been Daddy's car, his pride and joy. When she'd been little, Daddy would speed down the road with the top down and her by his side. It had cost her dearly to rebuild the old car over the years, but she felt close to Dad when the leather seats wrapped around her like a hug. She'd always been a daddy's girl.
"It's about time. I haven't heard from you in weeks," the old woman complained. "Now get your fanny over here already. The day is half gone."
Had to give it to her for being spunky at her age. "It's only eight o'clock. Most people are just getting their day started."
Grem pursed her lips with a vague hint of disapproval. "Don't be sassing me. Just give me a hug."
Kasey pushed her sunglasses on top of her head and hugged her grandmother.
"Let me get a good look at you."
Kasey stepped back and posed, forcing a smile.
"Goodness dear, you look thin, and you could use a haircut." The old woman took Kasey's hands into hers, then rubbed her thumb over Kasey's nails. "Would you have a look at those nails? My goodness. Are you sure you're my granddaughter?"
"Yes, I am." She rolled her eyes. "I haven't had time."
"Pshaw, you've just been sitting around moping. You've had plenty of time to take care of those little things."
Kasey sat on the top step in front of her grandmother. "Yeah, well that's just it. Those are little things, aren't they? Not so important in the scheme of things."
"Don't dismiss the importance of taking care of yourself. Lucky for you, I had a feeling you would be in a mess. I already called Seth at home. I've made appointments for both of us with him and George this morning, dear."
"Tell me you didn't." Kasey slumped. She like being pampered, and George and Seth were the best stylists around. But they were so full of energy, and she wasn't up to that.
"Yes, I did. If we don't get a move on, we're going to be late."
Defeated, she knew better than to argue. Grem always got her damn way. "Fine. I gather you already have Jeremy lined up to take us."
"Of course, dear. He should be around any minute. Why don't you put on some lipstick? You look a little pale."
"I look fine." She gave her grandmother a stern look. "Don't push it, okay?" She now remembered why, when she'd lived here, she stayed in the carriage house where she could come and go without bumping into Grem on a daily basis, and why she'd hired Jeremy in the first place. Well, that and the fact that Grem had run off all the other help. Jeremy had staying power.
The older that woman got, the more she thought she had the right to do and say whatever she damn well pleased. That wasn't always pleasant.
Jeremy pulled the Mercedes around. Kasey scooted to the edge of the step and stood, muttering under her breath, "Saved by the Benz."
He made his way to the porch and hugged Kasey. "Glad to see you out and about. We've missed you. You doing okay?"
She nodded, although not too convincingly.
He gave her the don't-lie-to-me look. "Call me. Let me know if you change your mind about the other thing we talked about."
"You know how that freaks me out. I don't see that happening." She put her hand on his shoulder. "But, thanks."
Jeremy helped Grandma Emily into the car. She wouldn't hear of a van or special access vehicle; she'd just stay in the house forever before she'd allow someone to tote her around like that. Kasey got into the back seat and readied herself for what was to come.
The day turned out to be pleasant, even refreshing. Separated by spinning beauty shop chairs and the hum of blow dryers, there was no room for a lot of dialogue with her grandmother. Kasey was thankful for that. However, on the ride home, there was no safe barrier.
"You look like your old self now." Grem looked proud of herself.
"It was a nice day."
"Yes. So...are you ready to move back home yet?"
The old woman raised her hands. A shadow of anger swept her face as she turned and looked out the window.
"What? Why would I move back? I have a home."
Grem spun her sprayed fray of blued locks around to face Kasey. "Yes, you have a home, and it is with me. Now just come back to where you belong and live like the lady you were raised to be. I want what's best. You've wasted too much time already."
Kasey choked back a gasp. "Wasted? I cannot believe you."
"We all make mistakes, dear." Her grandmother clucked her tongue, then turned in her seat in a huff.
"Jeremy, pull over." Kasey slapped the back of his seat.
"What are you doing?" Grem's lips pinched into a tight line.
Jeremy caught Kasey's gaze in the rear view mirror.
"Pull over right now or I'm jumping out," Kasey said louder, her voice tight.
Her grandmother's eyes widened. "Don't be ridiculous."
Kasey fumbled with the door handle. Jeremy swerved the car off to the side of the road.
"What is your problem?" the old woman shouted.
"My problem?" Kasey shook her head. Her hands trembled. "My problem? Is...is...that you are heartless."
"Don't dear me. I can't believe you. I know you didn't care for Nick. That's fine. You have that right. But he was my husband who, whether you like it or not, I loved with all my heart. I'm empty without him. Empty. And my son. My son, damn it. Do you not have a heart at all you old...errrrrrrrrr." She pulled on the door handle again-this time it opened, and she jumped out of the car.
"It's not like he was planned," Grem muttered, half under her breath as Kasey slammed the door.
Kasey spun on her heel, fire in her eyes. "I heard that. I heard you. That was awful. What is making you act this way?" Kasey felt the tingle of red splotches rising on her chest.
Her grandmother rolled down the window. "Get back in this car. Have you gone crazy?"
"You're going to get yourself killed. You can't just walk along the interstate."
"Who would care?" Kasey balled her hands into fists, pumping them as she marched down the road. "Leave me alone."
"You aren't thinking clearly."
Kasey stepped over to the car and leaned into the window, way in, right into her grandmother's face. "I loved my husband. Having Jake was the best thing I ever did in my life. I don't want to hear your voice. I can't even think about you right now."
Calmness fell over her grandmother's features. "I loved Jake, too, honey. This outburst won't bring him back."
"He will be back." Kasey slapped the side of the car. "And you don't know anything about love." She stepped back and screamed to Jeremy, "Drive her home. I swear, get her out of here." She clenched her teeth so tightly that they ached.
"You don't have to live that way anymore."
"Why can't you get it through your thick skull? Nick and I wanted to share those dreams with our son, and I plan to do that." She threw her hands in the air, turned and started walking.
"Kasey!" Grem's voice rose to a screeching level.
Jeremy idled the Benz up to Kasey. "Are you going to be okay?" he shouted across the car.
"Fine. Just go!"
He eased back on to the road.
Kasey kicked the back of the car as Jeremy drove away.
She choked back tears as she walked along the shoulder of the interstate to the nearest exit where she called a cab to take her home. Home, to the farm in Pungo.
Thank goodness, she didn't have to wait long before the cab arrived. Kasey leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes, thankful for the silence on the long ride back. When they arrived, she paid the driver, got out, and went as far as the front porch.
All her good intentions to have a good day had backfired, but somehow she felt stronger for having tried. She loved Nick and she adored Jake. She missed them, ached for them. No one could ever take the good memories from her.
She forced herself to go into the house. There were ten messages on the answering machine. She pushed the button. People checking on her and leaving their condolences. Had it ever occurred to them that if they'd just quit reminding her how fragile she was, maybe she wouldn't be?
When would it stop?
Two messages from Riley, and one from Von, too. One from Jeremy, bless his heart.
His voice was kind and filled with remorse, not that her grandmother's actions were his fault. "Kasey, its Jer. Sorry about this afternoon. The old lady had it coming, though. She was way out of line. I just had your car loaded on a flatbed tow truck, and it's on its way to your house. I am so sorry about today. She loves you in her own way. Oh. Yeah. I pre-paid the wrecker driver. I used Miss Em's salon account. I figured she owed you, even if she'd never admit it. Call me if you need me. For anything. Bye."
The guy was a saint.
Quiet settled in the house. Dutch strolled out of the living room where he'd probably been napping in Nick's chair. He'd never done that when Nick was alive, but lately Dutch had taken it over as if he was next in line-man of the house.
Casey shifted her gaze to the kitchen table where Nick's cell phone lay, attracting her like a magnet. She picked it up and rolled it between her hands. She remembered how she'd cried when she opened the packet from the police, glanced at the phone, and seen there were twenty-three missed calls.
All from her. All made on that tragic afternoon.
The first voice mail had been the hardest for Kasey to listen to. Her voice begged Nick to respond, followed by the muffled sound of the phone being pried from her hand as she realized the officer wasn't mistaken about the news he had given her, and then her crying.
She still called Nick's number sometimes, just to hear his voice.
The next morning, Riley sat at her desk staring out the window. Kasey had promised she'd meet Riley for lunch, but she hadn't shown yet. Riley picked up the phone and tried to call her again. Still no answer.
Riley shifted the phone under her chin and dialed Von's cell phone. She tapped her pen on the desk, waiting until he answered.
"Hey, it's me." She closed the folder that lay in front of her on her desk. "Busy?"
"Never too busy for you. What's up?"
"Are you at the house?" She crossed her fingers, hoping that he was.
"Oh, good. I've been calling Kasey, and she isn't answering. I wasn't too worried this morning, but she was supposed to stop by the office this afternoon. She hasn't shown up."
"Want me to run over and check on her?"
She hated to ask, but... "Would you mind?"
"You know I don't mind."
His voice always settled her down, no matter how riled she got.
"Odds are she's in bed. Anything to avoid facing the pain." The past echoed in Von's words. "Don't worry. I'll head over there now."
"Thanks, sweetie. I just have a weird feeling about today."
"No cardinals or ladybugs?" he teased.
"Not one lucky sign all morning. That's when I started to worry."
He often teased her about her strong beliefs in lucky signs. But her superstitions had played in his favor when they'd been dating, so who was he to complain? Her quirky ideas were part of what made him love her so much.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'm on it."
Von closed the phone and headed to his SUV. The keys dangled from the ignition. One of the nice things about living all the way out in Pungo was the low crime rate. No reason to lock up.
He drove along the winding road toward Kasey's place...and Nick's. He'd always remember it as their place, together, even though Nick was gone. As he neared the house, he saw Kasey's old Porsche in the driveway. He pulled in and parked behind her car. Out of habit, he skimmed his hand over the hood as he walked past. The metal was cool. She'd probably been here all morning.
Von rapped on the back screen door, and waited for her to answer.
He was no stranger to this house. Over the years, when he and Nick were growing up, Nicks' granddaddy had lived here. Nick and Von had spent many weeks on this farm, in this very house. He opened the screen door and rapped on the wooden door.
No sound came from inside.
He twisted the handle, opened the door and stepped inside. "Kasey, it's me, Von. Are you around?"
He walked through the house, pausing at the sight of Nick's cowboy hat atop the rack of the sixteen-point trophy buck hanging on the wall. Nick's first buck. That thing had been around for years. He and Nick had hung it on the wall in their first rental back in college. They'd decorated it with a hat and black sunglasses and called him Buck Blue, the third Blues Brother. They'd sung Soul Man into beer bottles under that deer head many a night.
Von followed a beeping sound to the answering machine. The LED indicator flashed eighteen new messages. Knowing Riley, the last ten were from her. He slid the switch on the side and silenced the incessant beeping.
He checked every room downstairs, then went upstairs. The wood creaked under his weight. He gripped the heavy oak banister as he climbed the steep stairs and found the bedroom door halfway open.
"Kasey?" He pushed open the door. Balled up tissues littered the floor and comforter. He noticed a couple of V8 juice cans in the trash. Not even a V8 could straighten you out after the kind of loss she had suffered. He'd been there. He wouldn't wish that feeling on anyone. Apparently this was where she'd spent the bulk of her time, but she wasn't here.
Her car was outside. She had to be somewhere close by.
Maybe she's driving Nick's T-Bird.
Memories of how much Nick had loved that car clouded his thoughts as he left the house and walked across the pasture to the barn. Nick and Kasey used to cruise around, and she'd mouth those famous words, I love you, like Suzanne Somers in the movie American Graffiti.
Von unlatched the pole gate that led to the big red barn. The antique T-Bird was parked in a garage next to it, untouched.
He walked over to the barn door and slid it wide. Light flooded the vast space. Dust danced in the sunrays and thick cobwebs shimmered in the sunlight.
A rhythmic thump echoed through the large building.
"Hello?" No one answered, but the thumping picked up pace.
Inside he caught a glimpse of Dutch sprawled beneath the ladder that led to the loft. He whimpered as Von got closer, but didn't get up.
"Are you okay, buddy?" He patted his leg. Dutch stood, but wouldn't leave the ladder. "What's the matter boy?"
He lifted his nose in the air and let out a long low howl like a beagle howl.
"What are you doing out here?" The dog pushed his nose under Von's hand. "Where's Kasey?"
Dutch shook his head, his heavy ears flopping, and yawned.
Von stooped next to the dog and scanned the barn. "Know where Kasey is?" Dutch was over ten years old now, his muzzle gray. He didn't get around as quickly as he once had, but he was smarter than some men Von knew. Dutch seemed to point his nose up the ladder to the loft.
"Kasey." Von climbed the ladder to the loft. It was dark with the exception of a few slivers of light peeking through loose boards. Square bales filled the space. Alfalfa. He recognized the smell.
He swished his hand overhead, grabbed for the string to the bulb that he knew was there and tugged. In the dull yellow glow, he noticed a dark lump on top of a stack of hay bales.
He raced to the end of the barn.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he thought his heart might break.
There was Kasey, lying across the hay bales, dressed in Nick's coveralls, which seemed to swallow her.
Her dirty bare feet hung from the pant legs. She had tissues wadded in one hand and Nick's old farm hat held to her chest with the other. In the crook of her arm, she held Jake's stuffed horse. Nick's first gift to his son, bought on the day the child was born and named after him. Their first day as a family. Jake had dragged that horse around until the time he could walk, then he'd gotten Bubba Bear and that ratty horse was put out to pasture in the toy box.
Von climbed the sturdy stacked squares.
She didn't stir.
"Hey, kiddo, are you okay?" He wondered how long she'd been up here.
Fear sparked through him. In the extra-large coveralls, he couldn't see if she was breathing. He reached out and rested his hand on her side.
"Kasey, can you hear me?" He nudged her shoulder.
She took in a breath. Thank goodness. Relieved, he scooted closer.
"It's me, Von."
Her eyelids fluttered.
He leaned in closer and lowered his voice. "Hey. Talk to me."
She opened her eyes and let out a soft sigh.
He stretched out next to her so they were eye to eye, resting his head on his bent forearm. "You okay?"
"What do you think?" She spoke in a broken whisper.
"I think you're hurting."
She nodded. "You must think I'm cracking up, wearing his clothes." She lifted her coverall-cloaked arm. Her hand didn't even peek out the end of the sleeve.
Von pushed her bangs away from her damp cheeks. He shook his head. "No. I wouldn't judge. I've been right where you are. We all mourn and heal in our own ways."
"I'll never heal."
He stroked her back. "I know it feels that way."
She sniffed and shifted her arm up under her head, wiping her tears on the big sleeve of the coveralls.
"I'm not going to tell you that things will be all right. That was the last thing I wanted to hear when I lost Deidre."
"You just have to take things a day at a time. The truth is, you'll never be the same. But that's okay, too."
Kasey looked away. "There was another shooting on Route 58 last night. Did you know?"
"I heard. I'm checking it out," he said.
"It's like the third or fourth time. Sprays of bullets, no injuries," Kasey said. "What are the odds that, with all those incidents, Nick would be the one to get killed?"
He didn't tell her that Nick's shooting didn't fit the random pattern, or type of gun. A shotgun was used in the other shootings. The casings found by Nick's truck near the accident site were from a small caliber bullet. The police had confirmed that earlier, but that information wasn't something Kasey needed to hear right now.
Von shook his head. "I don't know. Sometimes there aren't any good answers."
"It's not fair."
"Nick was a good man. He didn't deserve to die. I can't live without him." Kasey sniffled. She buried her face in her hands, then lifted her eyes to meet Von's. "I need him. He'd help me find Jake. Everybody thinks I'm crazy to believe Jake's still out there. He has to be. I can't live this way."
"I don't want to."
"Come here, kiddo." He hugged her close.
She came undone in his arms, sobbing. It broke his heart to see her so sad, to know that Nick wouldn't be back. Nothing he could say could change that. He held her and after a long moment, she quieted a little. "You better?"
She nodded against his shoulder.
"I need to call Riley and let her know you're alive. She was worried about you."
"We understand. Can you call her?" Kasey look whipped. She was dirty and sweaty. Von tipped her nose with his knuckle. "It would mean more if the call came from you."
Kasey looked down. "I'll call her."
Von descended the ladder first, then spotted Kasey as she climbed down in the oversized coveralls. They walked out of the barn, the extra long pants swishing with each step she took.
... continued ...
Want to continue reading? Click on the title below to download the entire book for just $3.99!