Maggie pressed a clenched fist to her stomach and drew in a deep breath. You can do this. The funeral was much harder, and it’s almost all over now. She opened the glass doors to the large brick building and made her way up the beige-carpeted steps to the third floor. A small brass placard to the side of the office door let her know when she’d reached the right room: Webber and Gareth, Attorneys at Law.
She lifted a shaking hand to smooth the errant wisps of hair around her face, drew another steadying intake of air and opened the door.
An older woman in a soft mauve dress looked up from her mahogany desk, small strands of a tidy gray bun spilling around her face in gentle curls. “Miss Willings,” she said quietly, nodding. Her line-grooved eyes were filled with a generic kindness worn by those who frequently interacted with grieving relatives or emotionally volatile clients. “Please, come in. Mr. Webber will see you in the conference room.” Her slender heels clacked across the slick black-tiled floor into a clean, neutral room on the right with a massive cherry table. “Can I bring you any coffee?”
“No, I’m—” Maggie stepped inside, then stopped, blinking in surprise. “I’m . . . fine,” she made herself continue.
Andrew Brownstone stared back at her, offering a polite half smile. A lock of dark hair flopped over his brow, and in typical Andrew fashion, he let it stay.
Why was he here? Her lungs squeezed tight. He’d made a brief appearance at her grandfather’s funeral, lingering at the back of the crowd and giving her nothing more than a slight nod. The biggest show of emotion he could muster, it had seemed. Had her grandfather put some kind of provision for him in his will?
And if so, why?
She buried her shock and irritation. This wasn’t about her and her issues with an old high-school boyfriend—it was about her grandfather. “Andrew,” she managed to say, proud of her cool and calm voice. She slid into the chair, pressing her now-damp palms onto her lap.
“Maggie,” he replied, his voice equally smooth, the slight drawl slipping across her skin and caressing her in a way she’d thought was long forgotten. His dark suit highlighted the sharp edge of his jaw, the bright blue eyes she’d fallen into more than once, back when she was a naïve seventeen-year-old.
Eight years. Eight years since she’d seen him, and they’d been reduced to these polite formalities. It was like they’d never kissed, never slipped out at night to dance under the moon and—
“Hello?” a familiar light voice asked from the doorway.
Maggie whipped her head around. Icy anger flooded her veins as she stared into the eyes of her former best friend. The gold digger herself, dressed to the nines in a slim red-and-black sheath with black Christian Louboutin heels tall enough to stab someone. Her dark brown hair was coiffed to perfection. God forbid Bethany step out in public without drawing attention to herself.
“Bethany. I’m surprised you bothered to leave my grandfather’s mansion long enough to make it here.”
The instant the words flew from her mouth, Maggie flinched, knowing she sounded a bit too harsh. The rampant emotions of the last few days—finding out her estranged grandfather had died, booking a last-minute flight from Florida back to her hometown, the funeral—had nearly broken her. But when she’d seen Bethany clutching her grandfather’s cold, dead hand while she was poured into an expensive black dress and crying prettily into a handkerchief, Maggie had nearly lost it.
Why had no one warned her beforehand about her grandfather’s affair—and with her, of all people? What would a woman in her midtwenties want with a man in his sixties? Nothing . . . unless he happened to be attached to several million dollars. She never would have expected that kind of blatant materialism from Bethany, though apparently she should have.
The only thing that had held back Maggie’s rage at the funeral was respect for her family. Now that her grandfather was gone, their ties with Bethany could be severed once and for all. The woman could get her portion of the inheritance today and slither back under a rock for all Maggie cared.
Bethany slipped into a padded black swivel chair at the end of the table with a tightly clenched jaw, not responding to Maggie’s barb. Just as well. She needed to get through this next half hour and then get the hell out of here. Hop back on a flight to Florida and leave this godforsaken nightmare behind.
Every moment in this town reminded her of dark memories she’d fought hard to suppress.
Not now. Maggie bit her lip, forcing her attention to the smooth wooden curves of the table, the rich swirl of colors.
The silence stretched out, long and awkward. Chairs creaked. Fingers drummed on the table. Maggie shifted in her seat, checked the time on her cell. What the hell was taking her brother so long? And were her parents coming too, or had they been cut out of the will because of the family split?
She purposely didn’t look at Bethany, who made occasional inane small talk with Andrew about the weather, the high school football team’s chances of success this year, on and on and on. What did Maggie have in common with these people, anyway? Nothing anymore, it seemed. So much distance.
So much unsaid.
Finally, her brother Robert burst in, the usual flurry of chaos accompanying him. “I’m here,” he said loudly, his dark blond hair spiked casually on top, his gray suit slightly wrinkled but form-fitted to perfection. “Sorry to keep you all waiting.” His gaze scraped over Andrew, who nodded, then over Bethany.
Right on his heels came her grandfather’s probate attorney, Mr. Webber himself, bearing a thick manila envelope and a regretful look on his face. “So sorry for all the delays,” he said, his voice thin and reedy as he shuffled his portly body to the end of the room. He sat, and Robert took the empty seat on his right. “First, let me say I’m truly sorry about your grandfather. He was a good man, and we’re going to miss him.” His eyes showed earnest emotion, underscored by the deep worry lines on his face. “I’m going to get right to the point. Your grandfather never let go of hope for a solution to Cassandra’s case, and his will addresses that.”
Maggie’s jaw dropped, her heart slamming madly against her rib cage. A swell of pain washed over her, fresh as ever, mixed with a healthy dose of confusion. “What does she have to do with any of this?”
What the hell was going on here?
Robert paled, drawing in a shaky breath. “Cassandra is gone. This is ridiculous. I don’t understand.”
Mr. Webber opened the folder and drew out a packet of papers plus four envelopes. “It might seem like old history to you, Mr. Willings, Ms. Willings, but it wasn’t to your grandfather. I was instructed to give each of you a letter he’d personally written. If you have questions, I will attempt to answer them once you’re done reading.” With that, he distributed envelopes to the four mourners.
Maggie’s hand began shaking again. What was the old man up to? Was this how will readings normally went?
Oh, Grandpa. So many lost years, time she’d never get back with him. Regrets piled up on her, stooping her shoulders and curving her back in grief. Now he was gone forever, and all she had was this handwritten letter. Sorrow bubbled in her chest and it took several attempts to nudge it back down.
Keep it together, at least for now. She would not lose it here. Not in front of these people.
Maggie withdrew the letter from the envelope and read, shutting out the quiet mumblings of everyone else to focus on his last words.
My dearest Maggie,
I’ve missed you so much over the last few years. Though we haven’t talked as often as we could have or should have, you’ve never been far from my thoughts. I’ve watched you grow from a curious little girl into a hardworking, independent adult who has forged her own way into this world.
And I’ve never been prouder.
I know you’re probably a little surprised right now and wondering what’s going on. Not everyone can plan for death, but I was lucky enough to have a little time. When the cancer came, I was blessed to be able to tie up all my loose ends.
Your sister’s name became a curse word in our family. It split us apart.
I know your mother never believed me when I said that despite how hopeless Cassandra’s case may appear, despite the exhaustion of all visible leads, I knew in my gut that the answers were out there—in her desperation to heal, she needed to let your sister go and try to move on. But I couldn’t. These past few months I’ve thought of her more and more, wondered what kind of a woman she would be. Still as spirited and wild as her teen years?
Cassandra had the potential to be anything she wanted. A potential that was stolen from her and left us all hurting and empty, unable to forget.
Maggie’s hand shook, and she wiped away the tears burning in the corners of her eyes. Cassandra still haunted her dreams too. Having her sister suddenly vanish was a nightmare she still hadn’t woken up from.
If only Maggie had gone to that party.
Stop that, she berated herself. Going down that road wouldn’t help. She turned her attention back to the letter.
I’m going to ensure my sweet granddaughter gets her peace, one way or another. I pray she’s still alive out there somewhere, somehow. But whatever the truth is, we need to know. This has gone on too long. So I’m holding a contest for the full amount of my wealth. Mr. Webber can tell you specifics, but essentially, I’m relying upon one of you four to find out what happened to your sister since you were the closest to her, especially that last summer. You four know her better than anyone else—where she went, who she was around, her secrets and her hopes . . . a lead is in there, somewhere. Find it.
Someone knows what happened to Cassandra but isn’t talking. All my money and resources couldn’t uncover the truth or pinpoint who that person is, to my eternal sadness. But I’ve never given up hope.
Reunite our family, Maggie. Heal this open sore that has festered for far too long. And in this way, I can make peace with your parents. I know that they were angry with me for not letting go, that they still are (especially my daughter), but they’ll see when they have closure that it was the right thing to do.
And never forget how much I love you.
Always, with love,
Maggie pressed a hand to her suddenly aching forehead, fighting back hot tears. Her grandfather had assigned the four of them to solve this mystery for some reason. An impossible open case that had no leads, no trail, no solid evidence to pursue. And the reward for the winner would be staggering.
“Oh my God,” Bethany murmured.
Maggie looked up to find the woman’s hand shaking, the letter whispering with each movement. What did her letter say? She almost wished she could look. Better that she didn’t, though. If there were any terms of endearment in there, she would likely throw up on the table.
“This is ridiculous,” Robert said, scrubbing a hand on his face. He dropped the letter, shooting Mr. Webber an angry glare. “How is this even legal?”
“It’s perfectly legal, I assure you,” Mr. Webber said, irritation threading his voice. “I drew up the paperwork myself.”
“So, assuming we’re all going to participate in this . . . whatever the hell we call it,” Andrew said, waving his hand in the air, “what happens if none of us find out what happened to Cassandra?”
“The entire sum of Mr. Holden’s money, approximately ten million dollars, will be given to a number of different animal shelters across our county. His estate will also be liquidated and all funds donated as well.” Mr. Webber’s voice was flat. “Obviously, he was counting on you all to not fail.”
Maggie looked around the room at the three other faces reflecting her own inner surprise at the turn of events. She had a good life, was able to work as a commercial web designer with a flexible schedule and support herself; it wasn’t about the money. This would be about digging back into her past and resurrecting the horrible pain she’d tried to leave behind. Was she strong enough to do so?
One thing she knew—she couldn’t let Bethany take the money, or the house . . . the thought curdled her stomach, bringing with it a pinch of anger.
What had her grandfather been thinking? She couldn’t believe he had picked the four of them, four childhood friends and siblings whose lives had splintered so far apart. He was a shrewd man, a calculated risk taker. And he knew each of them would have a stake in solving Cassandra’s . . . disappearance. Kidnapping. Murder. Or whatever it was that had happened to her eight years ago.
Obviously, Maggie and her brother had the personal angle in the case, since Cassandra was their younger sister. Both Bethany and Andrew had been close to the family when they were teens, so the two of them would likely know as much about the case as anyone else. Upon chewing these facts over, her grandpa’s reasoning made sense to Maggie, but that knowledge didn’t ease her turmoil.
Her gaze met Andrew’s. He accepted her scrutiny and matched it with a bold, open look of his own. His hand was steady, his face smooth. He’d obviously grown adept over the years at disguising his emotions; she could read nothing on him.
Would he accept the challenge for the money?
Or did he have something else to gain here?
Lake Erie beat hard against the shoreline as Maggie wound her way down the road to her parents’ home in Bay Village. The sun was shining in spite of the brisk autumn air, and the leaves still clung tenaciously to trees, fluttering madly in the wind. A lovely Ohio view, but it brought no peace.
She couldn’t get her grandfather’s letter out of her mind. This insane contest. Had her grandfather grown mentally ill in her absence? No, that wasn’t it. His letter was perfectly coherent, the bold strokes of his penmanship sure and steady. He’d known exactly what he was doing.
Forcing together four people to finish what he couldn’t. What no one else could, actually.
After the meeting, Maggie had grabbed her brother’s arm and led him into a private conference room, away from the watchful eyes of Bethany and Andrew. When she’d asked him if he thought the two of them should pair up, he’d thinned his lips for a long moment and said he wasn’t sure. Then, glancing at his watch, he’d mumbled that he needed to rush to a work meeting and left the room, throwing over his shoulder that he’d call her later.
The whole thing had left her unsettled even more than she’d been. Well, maybe she would just shoot him a text in the evening, when she knew he’d be done with work for the day. Though to be honest, the idea of pairing up with her brother wasn’t very palatable. Her brother was notoriously unreliable, had been ever since he was a kid, and Maggie had a gut feeling she wouldn’t be able to depend on him to pull his weight.
She lowered her window a little, letting in the crisp, cool air as she turned off the main road onto her parents’ long driveway toward their estate. Home again. Several months after her sister’s disappearance, she’d left all of this behind, had escaped into college, needing to flee from the escalating anger between her parents, her brother’s withdrawal into drinking.
Every room in their house had reminded them all of Cassandra. Her presence lilted and danced around corners, flitted in open windows, settled like soft dust along every surface. She was inescapable.
And Maggie couldn’t breathe in there anymore.
So she’d run off to college, then into her new life, only coming back for brief holiday visits. A system that had worked decently until now.
She reached the three-car garage and pulled in front of the massive doors, turning the car off and drawing a steadying breath. The enormous two-story house looked the same as always from the outside. Pristine front lawn, meticulously groomed and sculpted to showcase the clean brick face and white pillars. Showing their wealth without flaunting it. Her grandpa had been loaded from old family money, thanks to smart investments over decades, but her parents had built most of their own wealth.
As her father’s daughter, her mom had learned the value of a buck from Maggie’s grandpa, the ways to invest and grow money. She didn’t need money but still worked part-time as an investment planner, claiming it was a distraction, something to keep her from being bored at home and that she liked helping others develop their own personal wealth.
The front door opened, and Maggie’s mother stepped down. Maggie noticed the deep lines of fatigue on her mother’s face. While her mother was still lovely, she looked tired to her bones. The funeral had aged her, in spite of her lengthy estrangement with her father. It tugged at Maggie’s heart; she hadn’t seen her mom so bereft, so lost.
Not since Cassandra.
Her mom opened her arms, wrapping Maggie in a hug. She felt frail, thin. “How did it go? What happened?”
“Hold on, let me get my bags,” Maggie replied, giving her mom a small smile. She’d crashed in a hotel room on the outskirts of town before the funeral, despite the guilt that had battered at her chest about being too chicken to return home. Even her grandfather’s funeral couldn’t make her stay there.
But that wasn’t going to work for a long-term situation. She would needlessly burn through her money, and since she was staying longer than she’d originally planned, she had to buy more clothes and find a cheaper alternative for where to stay. Thankfully her current project allowed her the flexibility to do her design work anywhere so she wouldn’t have to take more time off than she already had.
As soon as her brother had taken off after their non-conversation, Maggie had called her mom and asked if she could move back in, just for a bit, saying she’d explain things when she got there.
This wasn’t something to talk about over the phone.
“Need help carrying anything inside?” her mom asked politely.
“Nah, I only brought one bag with me.”
The two of them made their way into the house. Nothing had changed in the family room from what she could see, except for the plush carpet being updated from burgundy to a soft gray, and a handful of new, expensive knickknacks on display in the curio cabinet. Classic elegance poured out of the formal living room, the dining room that seated twelve, the pristine kitchen with its state-of-the-art appliances. Her mom led Maggie upstairs to her old room.
It was strange, coming back here. But the years of distance had given her much-needed space. Cassandra didn’t haunt her now as much as she’d been afraid she would. Maggie’s shoulders relaxed just a touch.
Her mom opened the door. Her bedroom was no longer plastered with posters of rock stars and pictures of friends, as it had been when she was a teenager. Instead, her mother had converted it into a comfortable, if not a little bland, guest room.
Was Cassandra’s room still untouched?
Something she’d have to find out later when her mother wasn’t around. Because if she was going to find out what had happened to her sister, she needed a place to start. And her room, with her belongings, was a logical launching place. All the important case evidence was probably still at the police station, but maybe something had been left behind in Cassandra’s room that could help.
Maggie plopped her small suitcase on the bed and sat down, waving for her mom to take a seat in the open wingback chair. “So, I went to the will reading,” she said, then swallowed, her heart racing. This was going to be difficult. For a brief moment, she was frustrated that her grandfather was forcing her to open her mom’s wounds all over again. A necessary cruelty.
Her mom nodded calmly, but the expression belied the clenched hands, the foot of her crossed-over leg fluttering in the air.
Taking a steeling breath, Maggie quickly explained the terms of the will, watching her mother’s face progress from confusion to sorrow, then plunging into anger, brow furrowed and jaw dropped.
“You have to be kidding,” her mom finally said. Her voice was quiet, but the words were layered in a bitterness Maggie hadn’t heard for a long time. “I cannot believe . . .” She pressed a hand to her throat, drew in a ragged breath. Her eyes blazed. “What was my father thinking? This is insanity!”
Maggie reached over and patted her mom’s knee. “I’m so sorry. I know . . . I know it’s been hard for you and Dad, that you’ve fought to find some kind of normalcy in your life. And this is going to dredge up a lot of things for you.”
Her mother stood, paced, her thin heels clacking on the teakwood floor. “How could he do this to us after all we’ve been through? And why would he let that—that woman get a shot at his money?”
Maggie’s lips pinched and she nodded. She understood her mother’s anger. Bethany had no right to anything.
Her mom turned, her eyes piercing. Her voice was low but resonant. “You and your brother have to keep the inheritance out of that woman’s hands, Maggie. I don’t care what you do. Bethany does not get one damn penny of it.”
“I know, trust me.” Even as she said it, she saw Bethany’s red-rimmed eyes in her mind, pain engraved on the woman’s face. She shoved that uncomfortable emotion aside. Bethany was only upset that her money source had died.
This family grudge against Bethany had been brewing for a while. Maggie had stopped being friends with the woman back in college, a relationship that went from intimate to awkward to nonexistent. But when Bethany had hooked up with Maggie’s grandpa, what started as a grudge had gone near explosive. Bethany was a conniving freeloader, and she’d fixed her sights on the Willingses—and no one in the family would let that go.
Her mom took in a slow breath to regain her calm. “What did your brother have to say about it?”
Maggie shrugged and fought back an irritated sigh. “He took off almost as soon as the reading was done. We’ll probably talk about it later tonight when he’s off work.” In the inheritance meeting, his eyes had looked as haunted as everyone else’s. No one had expected this turn of events.
A phone rang downstairs.
“I should get that,” her mom said, sniffing and wiping an unsteady hand under her eyes. Her public face was back on, her grief safely tucked away once more. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
The bedroom door closed softly behind her.
Sudden pressure of Maggie’s task weighed on her. The enormity of what she had to do—find her sister, keep her grandfather’s inheritance in the family’s name . . . how could she accomplish it all? She dropped her head into her hands as sorrow and frustration swept through her.
Even the police had no answers. They’d investigated, of course. Months and months of searching, questioning, subpoenas, warrants. But when nothing turned up and when her grandpa’s PIs came up empty-handed, Cassandra was labeled as a missing child, possibly a runaway, the unsolved case growing colder with each passing year.
Her sister’s face the last time Maggie had seen her flitted to the front of her mind. Hazel eyes shining as she’d gushed about going to a party for upperclassmen out at the old barn. An exclusive invitation rarely offered to non-seniors. How she was going to make football jock Joel like her, was going to dress sexy and flirt with him like there was no tomorrow.
For her, there hadn’t been.
The thought was a vise squeezing Maggie’s lungs. Her sister had always been bold, brazen, skirting the edge of propriety without a care in the world. A constant source of struggle between Cassandra and their parents, who’d tried to bring their youngest daughter in line when she’d occasionally go too far. But how could one control such a free spirit?
Cassandra was like a breeze that turned hot or cold, depending on her moods. Never dull. Never predictable. Always the center of attention. Maggie had loved her, had envied her even.
And then there was Andrew. The guy Maggie had left behind when she’d escaped their town, the guy who hadn’t loved her enough back then and had dumped her via a brief phone call on that fateful day. Hence the reason Maggie had stayed home, crying in her bedroom instead of watching her sister at the party.
Andrew and Maggie’s relationship had ended badly, her obviously caring about him far more than he’d cared about her. Unfortunately, he was only more magnetic now, having grown into a confident man. In spite of herself, she’d felt an instant pull, a fluttering in her stomach when she’d seen him at the reading.
How could she get through this with her sanity intact?
Her mom clicked the door open and dropped beside Maggie on the bed, rubbing her back in small, soothing circles. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry,” she said in a broken whisper. “I know this is going to be so difficult for you.”
She turned and hugged her mom, letting the tears burning her eyes fall on her face. “I was just starting to feel like I could finally heal.”
But that wasn’t quite true. How could one heal when there was a gaping wound with no cure, no answer? Just a never-ending mystery.
The one she had to solve now, in spite of the odds.
Her mom patted her back and then pulled away, her eyes filled with resolution. “I’m sure it’s going to be hard. But you and your brother have to do this,” she whispered hotly. “Don’t let our family down.”
Maggie cupped the hot coffee between her hands, willing her fingertips to warm. Her walk to Lakeside Diner, only a mile away, had been good to clear her mind, but it had left her slightly chilled. Ohio was a lot more brisk in the fall than she’d remembered, a far cry from the humid warmth of southern Florida, where she lived now.
But the view was stunning. She’d forgotten what it was like to have green everywhere. Surrounded by grass and trees. And Lake Erie—its gentle rumble had settled back under her skin.
She peered out the diner’s front window, looking at the pockmarked asphalt and narrow road just beyond. The other three should be there any minute now. She’d been beyond surprised to get a quick call from her brother a couple of hours after she’d gotten settled into her room and freshened up. In Robert’s usual straightforward fashion, he’d simply said the four of them needed to discuss the will, to iron things out among themselves before they started digging into the case.
Of course, she’d agreed. But when she’d asked him again if he wanted to discuss teaming up, he’d finally huffed some rambling nonsense about how he didn’t think it was a good idea, given how complicated the whole thing was.
Yeah, Maggie knew what the big “complication” was—Robert didn’t want to split any of the money with her. Maybe it was better this way, anyway, given how often they butted heads and couldn’t seem to agree as kids. Still, it had stung a bit, being so quickly rejected by him. Her mom had encouraged her to try once more, for the sake of the family, that Robert probably just needed a little time to process it all. Though she’d been frustrated, she’d agreed to give it another shot.
Now she was at the diner, waiting for the other three to show up.
The old diner hadn’t changed at all. Being fairly close to her house, they’d come here as teens practically every day, grabbing coffee on the way to high school or eating greasy burgers after a raging party. The restaurant had been a key part of her social life and was generally always packed, in spite of its current state of near emptiness.
Weird to be back here now, as an adult. The red vinyl seats had a few more cracks and strips in them. The tabletops were dented, a little more scratched up from further years of rough use. She’d purposely picked this table instead of the one near the front of the diner, where she and Andrew had scratched their initials into the corner early in their relationship.
“Can I get you something else?” her waitress, an older woman with a short bob, politely asked her.
Maggie shook her head. “Coffee’s great, thanks.” She wouldn’t even be able to think about food until all of this got sorted out. Her stomach was churning with nerves, had been unsettled for hours. Days, really.
The glass door dinged open, and in walked Robert. He glanced around the nearly empty room then saw Maggie, giving an acknowledging nod. With a hand, he waved at the waitress and slid into the booth across from Maggie. “God, I need a drink,” he said on a rough exhale, rubbing the back of his neck.
Maggie resisted the urge to glance at her watch. Her brother’s method of problem solving usually involved a twelve-pack of beer and a long night of partying. But who was she to judge? Her method was only slightly better than his—running away never did fix anything, after all.
“At least the funeral is over now,” she murmured. “And we can all try to move forward.”
He gave a grunt and took the cup of coffee the waitress brought over. Apparently he was still a regular here; she’d known exactly what to bring him.
The next few minutes passed in awkward silence. Maggie was dying to know what her grandpa had written to Robert, but it wasn’t her business and she didn’t feel nearly comfortable enough to ask him. She and her sister had never been close to him, in spite of him only being a year older than Maggie, and two years older than Cassandra. And to be honest, his rejection of partnering up with her still stung. She wasn’t sure how to broach the subject again without him feeling pushed and getting pissed off.
Maggie also wanted to ask him what he thought about Andrew and Bethany. Was he upset that they were being dragged into this family drama? Were he and Andrew still friends?
They’d been thick as thieves, inseparable back then. The same as she and Bethany had been.
Bethany, still wearing the same black-and-red dress from earlier, pushed the door open then, scanning the diner with thinned lips. She saw Maggie and Robert and paused, seeming to draw in a fortifying breath as she slid toward them. Without a word, she slid into the booth beside Robert.
Maggie’s lips pinched closed in a reflexive action. She peered out the window, not wanting to look at the woman. The chasm had grown when Maggie had initially left eight years ago. Bethany had stayed behind, unable and unwilling to shake off the town’s roots. Plus, it wasn’t like her dad could afford to send her away to college, anyway. He’d been too busy spending his sporadic free money at the strip clubs in Brook Park.
Back then, after graduation, Bethany had started at a local community college and dropped out during the second semester of her freshman year, claiming school just wasn’t for her. Over time, the two girls had stopped talking regularly, since Bethany had ignored most of Maggie’s emails and texts except when she’d wanted someone to whine to. After a year or so of that, they’d completely stopped talking.
A wave of frustration hit Maggie. Over the years she’d heard from her brother that Bethany would come on to man after man, flitting from one sugar daddy to another. No steady job, no purpose. Then she’d landed on Maggie’s grandfather, wheedling her way into his life, helping herself to his money without an ounce of shame. She’d even had an allowance from him, according to her horrified mother when Maggie had finally pried her for information.
An allowance, for God’s sake.
What kind of woman did that? A desperate one, that’s who. One who would fight tooth and nail to get his money and estate.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Bethany said with a sniffle.
“Didn’t you know he was sick?” Maggie asked, unable to stop herself. Or hide the hint of disdain in her tone.
Bethany shook her head, her eyes flaring. “Of course I did.” She paused. “For a long time he’d said he wasn’t feeling well, but he hid most of his serious symptoms from me,” she said in a defensive tone. “I think he didn’t want me to be upset when he found out he had pancreatic cancer. He always was worried about my feelings.”
Maggie’s stomach roiled. “Maybe he didn’t think you’d be able to handle it,” she said quietly. The unspoken message was there: that Bethany was too busy focusing on herself to fret about someone else’s problems. She was obviously unreliable as a friend, much less as a lover and partner.
Nothing had changed, apparently. Bethany had been like that in high school, bouncing from guy to guy. It had been harmless then, something Maggie could overlook for the most part. Missed sleepovers because Bethany was too busy having sex with her flavor of the week. Classes skipped. Messages left unanswered.
But dating Maggie’s own grandfather? Come on. That crossed a whole slew of lines.
Slitting her eyes, Bethany said, “You know, it’s really easy for you to come back here and lash out at me without knowing what’s going on. You have no idea what our relationship was like.”
“Oh, really? What more do I need to know?” Maggie said, setting her jaw. Anger festered in her chest. Her grandfather had been loving, trusting. And this woman had taken him for a ride. How had he fallen for it?
“Come on, you two,” Robert huffed. “Knock it off.”
Maggie blinked at the irritation in his voice. She opened her mouth to retort, but Andrew came in. He strode over, his leather shoes padding across the tile floor, his suit still clean and pressed like he’d just put it on.
It was so strange, seeing this change in him. He’d been much more casual, more carefree when they were younger. Had worn nothing but faded jeans and old rock band T-shirts practically year-round when he wasn’t in his football uniform. As an adult, he was confident, attractive.
In one easy movement, he took a seat beside Maggie. His cologne had a slight woodsy aroma, and she couldn’t help but breathe him in.
Then she exhaled hard. No, she was not getting caught back up in him. Not now, not after everything she’d been through. His exterior may have changed, may have gotten slicker and more sophisticated. But deep down, he was still the same arrogant guy who was too selfish to feel, to love.
Who’d dumped her without one second thought.
Andrew looked at Bethany, Robert, Maggie. The waitress scuttled over and brought him and Bethany cups of coffee. They all drank in silence for a moment, buried in their own thoughts.
Tension wound through Maggie like a tightening coil.
“Look,” she finally said, putting her mug down and fixing her gaze on her brother, steadily ignoring Andrew and Bethany. “I’ll admit—I don’t like this at all. I can’t believe what Grandpa did. But it was his wish, his money, and I’m willing to put aside my own feelings to . . .” Her throat closed slightly and she swallowed. “To find out what happened to my sister.”
“Me too,” Bethany whispered.
“Then I guess it’s settled,” Andrew said, taking a long draw of his coffee. “We’re all in this to find out the truth about Cassandra.” He turned to look at Maggie, his eyes unreadable. “And we’ll know once and for all where she is and what happened.”
It didn’t take long to establish the parameters for how this was going to proceed. Granted, everything they discussed was essentially based on a gentleman’s handshake, so Maggie was a bit skeptical. They all agreed to not inhibit each other’s progress or interfere in any investigations. They would also do regular check-in meetings with Mr. Webber so he’d know their progress and could keep track of them. Nothing illegal or immoral was allowed.
Basically, keep it fair.
Let’s see how long that lasts, Maggie thought with a snort.
As soon as they’d agreed to the terms, Bethany had paid for her coffee and taken off, her high heels clacking as she practically ran out the door. No love lost on her part either, apparently. She’d sat the whole time with a pretty scowl on her face, arms crossed and refusing to look at Maggie.
Like she had any right to be upset.
What used to be a strong friendship, though flawed in many ways, had become a thick antagonism between them that could never be fixed. But who wanted friends like that, anyway? Maggie was better off now. She had a few work friends and acquaintances back home in Florida. They didn’t try to screw her family members—in sex or money.
Robert dug his cell out of his pants pocket and clicked it on. “I gotta run,” he said. “A few things to take care of. Tell Mom and Dad I can’t make it to dinner tonight but I’ll come this weekend.”
That would give Robert a few days to mull the whole thing over—and by then, he might decide pairing with her was the right idea after all. She could try to talk to him then. She nodded, sipping the last of her coffee as her brother tossed two crumpled dollar bills on the table and walked away.
Which left her alone with Andrew.
“I should be going too,” she said, tilting up the end of her mug to drink the last swig and scooting the cup away from her on the table. She reached toward her purse to get money for her drink.
“Wait, we need to talk,” he said. “About all of this.”
Her heart thudded. She looked up.
Andrew paused. “You’ve changed,” he murmured out of nowhere, unashamedly staring at her, gaze practically raking her hair, her eyes, her figure. His blue eyes were striking, thorough. “You seem different now.”
Her skin grew hot and tingly. She felt on display for him, studied in a way she hadn’t been looked at in a long, long time. “I grew up.” She raised one eyebrow. “You’ve changed too.”
Amazing. She was sitting here, having a real conversation with the guy who’d broken her heart all those years ago. But now they were competitors in a twisted game none of them really wanted to play.
Cassandra. The center of her family’s world, even years after her disappearance. Maggie couldn’t escape it.
“I had to change,” Andrew said with a dismissive shrug, interrupting her thoughts. “I was a kid, and I was incredibly stupid. As you remember all too well, I’m sure,” he added with a wry smile.
She thinned her lips, her pulse thrumming in her ears. Not going down that road right now. She needed to focus. “What did you want to talk about?” she asked him to get them back on track.
The flicker of emotion in his face fell away, and he became businesslike. “I have a proposal for you regarding the investigation,” he said crisply. “We pair up and help each other.”
Shock riveted her to her seat. “What?” Why would he want to team up with her, especially when even her own brother wanted to go it alone? Was he suggesting it because he thought she had some kind of leg up on the search?
Maybe she did. She knew her sister, had lived with the girl for sixteen years. Then again, with how much Andrew had been around because of his friendship with Robert, it wasn’t like he had a huge disadvantage here or anything.
“On the way over here, I gave the whole issue some thought.” He took a small sip of coffee, smoothly fluid in the way he placed the mug down. His long fingers stroked the rim. “She’s your sister. Your family. Not mine. I want to help you.”
Despite the coolness in his gaze, there was something earnest in his words. Either he meant what he said or he was a skilled actor. But why help her? Wouldn’t that risk him getting the money in the end?
Maybe it was one of those keep-your-enemies-close kind of thing. Could she really trust what Andrew was saying? He might just use her for information to make sure she wasn’t learning more than he was.
She groaned internally. God, this situation was making her paranoid. Her mind wouldn’t stop running, throwing out all these ridiculous scenarios in her head.
But one thing was for sure. It was already becoming apparent that Andrew was going to be a big distraction. Every memory she had of her best times growing up in this town involved him. It was going to be quite difficult separating him from the inquiry into her sister.
She wasn’t ready for this right now. She needed time to think. Plus she still needed to see if she could convince her brother to work with her. With a sigh, she reached into her purse and flicked a few bucks onto the table, adding a couple more dollars because her cheap-ass brother hadn’t even given any tip money.
“I’ll . . . think about it,” she finally answered, keeping her voice even. No way was she going to let him know he was shaking her up. That he affected her, made it hard for her to concentrate. In spite of the multitude of scents, she could detect his cologne. His eyes reminded her of the lake on a bright, sunny day.
There was something magnetic about him that drew people. But that didn’t mean she could trust him.
Andrew nodded, opening his wallet to grab a few bills for his coffee and handing her a business card. “Okay. Here’s my cell if you need to reach me.” He scooted out of the booth to allow her to exit.
She took the card, stuffing it into her pocket without looking at it. With a parting nod that she hoped looked less emotional than she felt, she turned and left the diner, the cool air hitting her in the face as soon as she opened the door. If it was this brisk now, it was going to be much colder tonight when the sun went down. Maggie tugged her thick sweater a little closer around her.
She turned around the corner of the diner and stopped in surprise. Bethany was standing by a hot-red fabric-top convertible, talking to a man, their bodies close, their hands moving animatedly as they spoke in hushed tones.
Something told her she wasn’t supposed to see this.
Maggie pressed her side to the brick edge of the diner, peering around the corner, pretending like she was standing there to block the wind. Because of the air whipping around the corner, it was hard to hear anything; she could only catch the occasional snatches of words.
Bethany swiped a hand across her eyes and waved a slender hand toward the diner but kept her face riveted on the man. He was tall, well over six feet and dressed in all black, towering over her and scowling down.
“Trying—” Bethany was saying, the pleading in her tone, her eyes evident. “Need time.”
“—soon,” the man retorted. His face turned stony and he gripped her upper arm, fingers digging into her flesh.
With that, Maggie’s heart thudded in her chest, roared in her ears. Should she call someone, go back and get Andrew to help? Step forward and intervene? Something was going on here. Something bad.
Maggie moved away from the chilly brick wall, stopping in shock when she saw Bethany reach shaking fingertips up to the guy’s face. She stroked his jaw, his lower lip, then moved closer, pressing against him.
Whoa. Had she been cheating with this scumbag? Disgust hit Maggie anew. Unreal.
The guy’s eyes slitted, but he didn’t move.
“I want—” Maggie heard Bethany start, her lips pursed into a sexy pout. She tilted her face toward the man then brushed her lips across the curve of his chin.
His body visibly relaxed and he dropped his grip, sliding his hand across her lower back, stroking the top curve of her buttocks. Bethany sighed and leaned closer, giving him a blinding smile.
Maggie’s heart rate dropped back down once she realized there wasn’t going to be any violence. But her frustration with Bethany grew tenfold. Was this one of the woman’s secret boyfriends, pissed because he was getting cut off from Maggie’s grandpa’s funds?
All the more reason Maggie had to make sure her grandfather’s money stayed out of that woman’s hands. Who knew how many of Bethany’s secret lovers could benefit from her grandfather’s death and might have been spending his hard-earned money while he was alive, thinking Bethany was true and loyal to him?
The thought made her stomach curdle.
Maybe trusting in the wrong person was a family trait. Sure as hell seemed Maggie had picked that up from her grandfather. She needed to be extra careful.
When Bethany rose up onto her toes and pressed another kiss on his jaw, Maggie couldn’t watch anymore. She sighed in disgust and walked away.
The walk back to her parents’ house was quiet, leaving Maggie with her swirling thoughts. Had it really only been this morning since her grandfather’s will reading? Seemed like days had passed since then. So much sadness and stress weighed her mind down, fought for her attention.
She needed to get organized. Chaos wasn’t going to help her find her sister. She needed a plan, a methodology on how to approach things. As she walked across crunchy brown leaves, scattered across the sidewalks, she ordered her mind to stop whirling around and one by one reviewed what information she’d learned so far.
Her grandfather had chosen the four of them. Obviously he’d realized they would all be vested in finding Cassandra, for whatever personal reasons. Like it or not, Maggie couldn’t escape them. Her brother, her ex-boyfriend, her ex–best friend.
Maybe part of what she needed to do tonight was analyze them as well. How they would go about trying to find Cassandra so Maggie could anticipate their strategy, as they were likely going to do with her. Know thine enemy, as the saying went.
Okay, the next element: Cassandra herself. Maggie needed to go through her sister’s things, painful and haunting as it was going to be, to see if there were any clues. And also talk to the police department, beg favors to see any evidence they would show her. Maybe the bedroom or evidence box held a note passed during class from a guy who might know something. A hidden flyer that gave a destination for a well-planned runaway.
As if Maggie could wish for something so obvious.
A small seed of hope blossomed in her belly, one she’d thought was long gone. Could her sister be alive? Was it too much to long for?
Stop that, she admonished herself. Eight years had passed without one word, one message from Cassandra. No way her sister would have stayed gone that long without trying to reach out to someone. Her sister was impulsive and rash, yes, but she also loved her family.
Their parents hadn’t moved, hadn’t changed their phone number in the small possibility of their daughter coming back home someday. They wanted to be available to her, just in case.
And Maggie hadn’t married; she wasn’t hard to find with a basic Internet search.
No, she couldn’t get her hopes up again. For now, she had to assume the worst. Sadly, the evidence pointed to it.
Which brought her to her third point of attack—Maggie needed to find the public records, articles and police records on her sister’s disappearance. It was always possible something had been overlooked, a scrap of a clue that would come together for her and lead her to her sister. Surely one of the attendees at that party might know something without even realizing it could be a clue, and she could start interviewing them by finding the list of attendees on the police report.
Forgoing the front door, Maggie, suddenly parched, opted for the side door that led into the kitchen. Her fingertips had gotten cold, since she hadn’t brought gloves with her to the diner. She craved a hot cup of tea and maybe something sweet to hold her off until dinner tonight.
As she opened the side door, she heard her parents’ raised voices echoing from the living room. Maggie closed the door quietly behind her, kicking off her shoes and stepping on socked feet across the floor. A habit she’d quickly gotten into after the family’s nightmare with Cassandra.
The event that had spiraled their family from its comfortable happiness to its strained existence. Just barely getting by. Smiles cracked around the edges, falling apart behind the privacy of the home.
“. . . can’t believe this,” her dad was saying. She could hear him pacing the floor, dress shoes tapping as he moved. Something he used to do nonstop for the first several months after Cassandra had disappeared. In Maggie’s mind she could visualize him thrusting his hand through his ever-graying hair, a painful scowl on his face.
Her dad hardly smiled anymore.
“I don’t want to believe it either, but my father apparently couldn’t let it go.” There was so much vitriol in her mother’s voice that Maggie stopped moving toward the fridge, shocked. “He never did respect that it was our daughter, our family. But that was Dad for you. Wanting what he wanted, when he wanted it.”
Maggie had never heard her mother talk about her grandpa in such caustic terms before. The anger boiled out of every word. How much emotion was festering inside her parents that she didn’t know about? Her mother and father had been so careful to keep calm around Maggie and Robert after the disappearance, not letting them see their tears or sorrow.
But Maggie had heard them. Every night.
“We should contest the will,” her father replied. His voice was flat. “I’m sure we could prove that your father was . . . not in his right mind at the end. Look at that girl he was dating, Susan. That alone shows he was crazy.”
Maggie eased herself into a kitchen chair, her stomach flipping over itself. She couldn’t leave the kitchen without her parents hearing that she was there. She was stuck, eavesdropping on something she simultaneously wanted to absorb and run from.
“My father was not crazy,” her mom said, her tone huffy. “He was a fool, but he was smart. He knew what he was doing.”
There was a long, awkward pause.
“I don’t know if I can go through this again,” her mom continued. There was such a heavy weariness in her voice that Maggie’s heart stirred in sympathy. “I’m still so raw, so tired. Eight years, but it feels like it happened yesterday.”
“We don’t exactly have a choice.”
“The case is far too cold by now. What new stuff can they even find? It’s been too long.”
“It wouldn’t have been cold if we’d kept pushing it.” There was a chilly edge to his voice. The unspoken words lingering in the air were,the way I’d wanted to. An argument Maggie had heard a time or two in the past and had secretly agreed with. While she knew her mom had wanted to try to heal and move on, she’d never been able to shake things off like that. Nor had she been old enough as a teen to take initiative and investigate on her own.
Then again, this wasn’t something she could criticize her mother about. After all, as soon as it was time for college, she’d turned tail and run. And hadn’t looked back.
“Plus your . . . distractions at the time didn’t help,” her dad pointed out.
“Oh, don’t start this up again, Michael,” her mom said, her words decidedly crisp. “For heaven’s sake, are we still going to dredge up our past? Am I going to be crucified for all of my mistakes, no matter how many times I say I’m sorry? What else do you want to throw in there—how I burned our dinner last week? That time I forgot to pay the electric bill? Since we’re doing the ‘blame game’ here, you know.”
“Am I wrong?” Her father’s voice rose to match her mother’s. “This could have been solved a long time ago, had we tried another PI. Like I’d wanted to. Then your crazy father wouldn’t have—”
“We don’t know where she is!” her mom burst out. Something banged hard in the living room, possibly an open hand slapping on a table, and Maggie startled. “And none of those damned people could help us! I just wanted some peace and sanity. Just one moment of it!”
Maggie bit her lip and stood. She couldn’t sit here and listen to her parents fight anymore. She slipped back over to the door, creaked it open as quietly as possible, then closed it loudly. “Hey, I’m home,” she said, moving loudly from the kitchen toward the living room.
Her father’s back straightened, and her mother stepped away from him, turning away for a moment to collect herself.
“Hey, sweetheart,” her dad said smoothly, wrapping Maggie in a hug. “Your mother tells me you’re staying with us for a bit.”