Present day, Paradise Falls, Idaho…
Clare Burke bolted upright in bed.
The hazy light of dawn filtered through the French doors and sent a halo of light over the shimmering image at the foot of the bed.
“Grace.” Two years and two days since her death, and her daughter still came to her, comforted her.
Questions overrode logical thought, but rather than sort through them she blurted out the one that continually weighed on her. “Are you happy?”
Grace smiled that smile that would drive a hermit in search of companionship, then vanished.
Had she been real or imaginary? The lines were as blurred as Grace’s image.
Tears welled in Clare’s eyes, and her heart absorbed a wave of grief. Why had Grace been taken from her? Why her child? All she had left of the daughter she loved were memories. Memories of pursed lips hiding braces, purple-streaked blonde hair and the snort of teenage sarcasm.
The faint light illuminated the sky blue walls. The room should have made her think of wide open spaces, but instead it had become her prison.
She stared at the stack of self-help books on her nightstand. She knew the titles as intimately as she did herself. Learn to Grieve, Living Without Your Loved One and her more recent pick, The Top Three Reasons Marriages Fail: Finances, Communication, and Emotional Detachment.
The knot wedged in her stomach wound tighter as she stared through a blur of tears at her husband, Ethan, sound asleep, twisted around the down comforter like a deranged pretzel.
When was the last time she’d felt truly connected to him?
Two years and two days.
They’d embraced life back then, now they tolerated it. They were shells of their former selves—colorless imitations of the vibrant couple they’d once been. Back then she would have told him about Grace’s visits. Now they were barely civil to each other. Ethan was here physically. Emotionally, he had become as untouchable as Grace.
The faint shriek of their oldest son, Jack’s, alarm filtered through the adjoining wall.
Tousled brown hair poked above the covers. A pair of matching brown eyes slowly opened and stared back at Clare.
“What time is it?”
Once upon a time that raspy voice had been her idea of a mating call. Now she felt a desperate ache that nothing filled. “Six.”
His knuckles grazed her cheek. “Still a while until we have to get up.”
Clare knew that tone, the darkening of his eyes, the wisp of a smile that had once held the promise of bliss. It would be impossibly easy to say yes, to curl into him and ignore the fact that sex for her had become as tempting as unflavored gelatin.
She pressed his hand to her cheek. “Could we just hold each other and talk instead?” Her words stripped the smile from his face.
He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. “Honestly, Clare, I’m all talked out.”
“I’m not.” She desperately wanted to recapture the closeness they’d shared, and the only way she knew how to do it was by talking.
He turned his head to look at her. “You never are.”
Three simple words and their bedroom became a war zone.
Did she really want to pursue this? No, but an urgent need to connect with him drove her to press him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He averted his eyes, but not before Clare saw a chill in them that left her hollow inside. Did saving one child only to have the other die take the joy out of living?
“Let’s have it. Tell me whatever it is I’ve done wrong according to the latest self-help book you’re reading on grieving.”
His pointed stare at the nightstand had outrage overriding her good sense. “Why do you feel threatened by those books?”
His gaze cut to her. “Why do you feel a need to hide from life in those books?”
His criticism stung. They’d had a good marriage, a good life, until it all went horribly bad.
“There’s no passion between us. There’s nothing between us anymore. We don’t talk, we don’t touch, we don’t make love, we have sex. I need to understand what changed.”
“I don’t need a book to tell me the obvious,” he said.
“It’s damn hard to drum up passion with a ghost between us.”
Had Ethan seen Grace too?
She sat up against the headboard. “What exactly does that mean?”
“It means Grace is always hovering over us. She’s always on your mind.”
He hadn’t seen Grace. Disappointment settled over her, then anger. Of course Grace was on her mind. She was her daughter. Death wouldn’t change that. “What do you want me to do, forget her?”
He swung his legs to the floor and sat with his back to her. He expelled a weary breath, then twisted around to look at her. “Can’t we just sometimes not think about her?”
“You mean pretend she never existed?”
He grimaced. “I didn’t say that. I just can’t think about her every minute of every day.”
Clare studied the photo of Grace on the dresser, her lips tightly sealed to hide her braces. She wished she could comply with his request. “I’m sorry. I can’t turn myself on and off like that.”
The very idea terrified her. What if she stopped thinking about Grace and she stopped appearing? Could she survive that?
Ethan shook his head. “I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this.”
The emotion clogged in her throat made it difficult to speak. “What are you saying?”
The silence between them had the same finality as their fourteen-year-old daughter’s blue and lifeless body on that pristine steel table.
“I love you. I’ll always love you, Clare, but I can’t stay in the past. It’s been two years since she died. I have to move forward.”
“So do I.”
The skepticism in his eyes was unmistakable. “You know, I think you really do believe that.”
Was he right? Was she the one who couldn’t move on?
Clare searched for the words that would convince him he was wrong, but nothing came.
He rose from the bed, and a moment later the bathroom door snicked closed.
Pain throbbed in Clare’s heart like a knife buried shaft-deep in her chest. She slipped out of bed, opened the French doors, and stepped out onto the wood deck. The October wind tangled through her hair like the knotted emotions inside her. She crossed to the railing and leaned forward as if she stood on the deck of the Titanic. Peaceful one moment, disaster the next. The same as her life.
Golden leaves fluttered past like fat snowflakes onto the ruffled waters of Lake Serenity. A picture perfect scene. One that should have lifted her spirits, but instead it was littered with pieces of her heart.
Jack laid in bed and listened to the shrill beep of his alarm clock. He preferred it to the muted sounds of his parent’s argument that filtered through the adjoining wall. Finally, he reached over and switched it to the radio. “The Day That I Die” came out of the tinny speaker.
An image of Grace, eyebrows jutted, lips pressed tightly shut came to him. She’d hated this song, and he’d played it repeatedly just to torment her. Strange how hearing it now somehow eased the ache and the anger inside of him that her memory generated.
Why did she have to ruin everything by dying?
He shoved back the covers and kicked the pile of dirty laundry away from the bed. A crunchy gym sock bounced off the full length mirror. He paused to study his reflection, flexed his arm and saw the bicep jump. Not much, but enough to encourage him his weight lifting routine made a difference.
He sucked in a breath, and his chest stood out, scrawny and undefined. If he could just put on some muscle, he might look like a man instead of a gangly bean pole.
Jack spun around to find Ben, his ten-year-old pest of a brother, in the doorway, camera in hand. “Get out of my room.”
Jack lunged at him, but Ben was quicker. He sprinted down the hall to his bedroom, laughter trailing after him. Grace’s laugh.
Jack stumbled, which gave his brother enough time to slam and lock the door. His fist pounded the wooden barrier. “If those pictures show up on your Facebook page, then the one of you running naked through the sprinklers goes up on mine.”
Silence. “Okay, I won’t put them up.”
Too easy. “If I see those pictures anywhere, I’ll make posters of your sprinkler ass and put them up all over town.”
A noisy sigh came through the door.
“Is that a yes?”
Ben’s door cracked open just wide enough for him to stick out his middle finger. “Okay, peckerhead.”
Jack grabbed for his finger, but Ben quickly slammed the door. He pounded his fist against it a final time. “That’s Mr. Peckerhead to you.”
Jack went back to his room and slammed and locked his door. He never had any privacy. Eight more months and he’d be at college. Away from Ben. Away from the memories.
He turned back to the mirror, and scrubbed the handful of fuzzy blond hairs on his chin, and debated whether or not to shave. They were faint, but definitely there.
Before he came to a decision about whether or not to shave, his father’s raised voice filtered through the wall.
Anger coiled deep inside him. Why couldn’t Dad have just let Grace stay home? Why couldn’t he have trusted her? The minute she’d stopped being his perfect little girl, he’d freaked.
What would he have done if she’d gotten a real tattoo instead of the wash-off, or if he’d seen the real piercing Grace’s friend Amanda did to her bellybutton?
Eight more months and he’d be out from under his parents’ authority. And he wouldn’t be around when they called it quits on their sad excuse of a marriage.
His mother’s angry retort sent Jack to the closet in search of another Jack. One that provided him with a hell of a lot more comfort than his parents did these days. He emerged with the bottle of Jack Daniels and took a swig. What would Grace think about her perfect, straight-A-valedictorian-bound oldest brother now?
More harsh words came through the wall and Jack washed away his pain with the numbing warmth of Tennessee’s finest.
The early morning light angled through the big, sunny yellow country kitchen. It was the kind of morning that used to make Ethan wish for the weekend. But not today. Today his mood remained gray-sky angry, and work would be his escape from Clare and their problems.
The bacon popped and sizzled along with Ethan’s temper as he expertly flipped the pancakes.
Clare opened the cupboard door and accidentally bumped into him. She shot him a wary glance, then gave him a mumbled apology, and went back to fixing lunches and sneaking sips of his coffee when she thought he wasn’t looking.
He wished he knew how to fix what was wrong between them. She was right that the passion between them was gone—or at least her passion for him. She never said it, but he knew making love had become a chore, a duty. Something she did for him, not because she desired him. And that knowledge stung. He wanted her to want him.
His temper skipped a notch when he spotted yet another self-help book on the counter. What they never told you in those damn books is nothing makes it hurt any less or brings your child back.
Ethan cursed and pushed aside the latest gem, Grieving Over a Loved One, she’d left open. No doubt for him to see and have some great epiphany. Just how many books did you have to read to get that they all had the same theme—that there were steps to grieving, but even so, everyone grieved in their own way. For some reason Clare missed that point. All she came away with was he wasn’t doing it right.
He broke several eggs into the bowl and vigorously whisked them into a froth that kept time with his temper.
His attention moved from the book to Jack and Ben’s squabbling. It was their usual start to the day and one he generally dealt with in good humor, but today it grated on his already frazzled nerves.
Ben picked at the center of his pancake with his fork. “This is raw in the middle.”
What was it about ten-year-olds and their food? Ethan could make Ben’s favorite meal and there would be something wrong with it.
Jack doused his pancakes in syrup. “You’re too picky. It’s fine.”
Ben’s fork banged against his plate. “What would you know about it? You’ll eat anything. Even live fish on a dare!”
“Shut up,” Jack said.
“You shut up.”
“You wanna make me?” Ben’s chair clattered to the floor when he leapt to his feet, fists balled. He charged his older brother.
Jack threw up his hand, and with his palm pressed to Ben’s forehead, he easily fended him off. Whistling off key, he held Ben at bay while he sipped his orange juice.
Ethan yelled over Ben’s howl of fury. “Hey.”
He tried again. “Knock it off, sit down and eat your breakfast.”
Still no response.
Ben’s howling reached an ear-piercing level. Grabbing the frying pan he’d used to cook the pancakes, he slammed it down on the counter with enough force to crack the ceramic tile he’d so painstakingly laid.
Jack and Ben froze. Clare gaped at him as if he’d announced he was an alien. He was not a man known for a short fuse.
“Every day it’s the same damn thing.” He focused on Jack. “Finish your breakfast.”
He turned to Ben. “You sit down and don’t leave until you’ve eaten every last bite of that pancake. I don’t care if you slurp the middle of it through a straw. And both of you do it in silence.”
Without another word, he stormed out of the room, leaving them in stunned silence. Good. It was about time they realized their even-tempered husband and father had his limits.
Clare loaded her photography gear into the back of her SUV. Even though she was running late, she did a quick check of the survival gear and the food she always carried for her and the animals. Only someone with a death wish went into the wilderness unprepared, and Clare had had one too many close encounters not to appreciate the necessity of being ready for anything. It was the reason they’d adopted Bailey, a Siberian Husky mix, and trained her to go into the mountains as protection.
Clare whistled. “Load up.”
The dog bounded around the side of the house and leapt into the rear of the car in one smooth motion, settling into her customary spot next to the side window.
Ballistic released a pitiful meow that was hardly befitting of his name. The mangy, one-eyed, smoke-colored cat had done his fair share of rough living before Bailey had found him on one of their trips into the mountains. And once Bailey had taken the malnourished creature under her wing, there had been no leaving him behind. So, they’d inherited a crazy feline who strutted around as if he were a five-hundred-pound Bengal tiger.
Clare picked up the cat, who’d only really liked being handled by Grace, but tolerated Clare’s touch out of necessity, and deposited him in the car. He promptly curled up next to Bailey.
Slamming the rear hatch shut, Clare climbed into the driver’s seat and cruised into town an hour behind schedule. Taking Warner Street, she drove through old town where “grand opening” flashed on the marquee of the refurbished Paradise Falls theater.
Her chest tightened, and a slow, steady ache threaded its way through her heart as she recalled the line of kids she’d seen buying tickets to opening night two days ago.
Grace should have been there, damn it!
Her phone beeped, indicating someone had left her a voice mail just as she was on the verge of losing cell phone service. With a grateful sigh, she pushed the painful memories aside and pulled onto the shoulder, then called for her messages.
Simultaneously she experienced warmth and misery at the sound of Ethan’s voice. Why did love have to be so complicated? Why couldn’t life have been one big happily-ever-after from the moment she and Ethan had said I do?
“I’m sorry about this morning. Be careful, and I’ll see you tonight.” A long pause, then, “I love you.”
Clare pressed end and blinked back tears. She stared out the window. He loved her. After all they’d been through she’d wondered if they’d lost that, too. But even with his hesitation just now, she knew the words had come from the heart. Was it enough to save their marriage and heal their family? She wished she knew.
She brushed away a tear that had escaped and quickly dialed Ethan’s cell phone. He would be in class, but she didn’t care. She wanted to leave him a message.
The computerized voice announced she’d reached Ethan Burke’s voice mail.
“Ethan, it’s Clare. I got your message. I just wanted to—”
Wanted to what? Say she was sorry? Yes, but what she really wanted was to undo the damage she’d done after the accident. Shame kept her silent. You couldn’t steal a man’s dignity and not have consequences for those actions.
Her voice thick with tears, she continued, “I just wanted to tell you I love you, too, and I’ll see you tonight.”
Before she could put the phone down, it rang. She answered it without checking the Caller ID and immediately regretted it when her mother’s voice came over the line.
“Clare, I’m so glad I caught you. I called earlier. Didn’t you get the message?”
The barely veiled note of censure hung between them. “Yes, Mom, I got it, but I haven’t had a chance to call you back.”
“Well, it’s fortunate I caught you now.”
“Actually, I’m working—”
“Oh good, then we’ll be able to talk.”
Clare sucked in a sharp breath and an equally sharp retort. Explaining her job to her mother was useless. Alexandria Benton dismissed Clare’s work as an outdoor photographer as a frivolous hobby, no matter what Clare said to the contrary.
Acknowledging defeat, Clare closed her eyes and prayed the call would be over soon. “I’m headed into a heavily wooded area, and I’ll lose phone service, Mom, so we’ll have to make it quick.”
“You’re going into the forest alone?”
Clare rubbed her forehead as pain throbbed behind her right eye. “You know perfectly well that is where I do most of my work. Don’t worry, I take every precaution.”
Her mother sniffed. “Yes, well, we know how effective that protection worked in the past.”
Exceptionally well. Clare’s gaze shifted to Bailey. She’d be dead right now, if not for Bailey’s protection.
“Mom, tick-tock. What did you call me for?”
“Must you always be so rude?”
“Must you always chastise me before getting to the purpose of your call?”
Her mother’s voice went whisper quiet. “Some daughters actually enjoy speaking with their mothers.”
Guilt. Her mother could spread it like icing on a birthday cake. The thing was, if she’d been wrong, Clare wouldn’t feel guilty. Why couldn’t she look forward to, anticipate even, talking to her mother? She longed to be close to her, but every effort she’d made had been rebuffed, so Clare shielded herself from rejection by erecting an emotional wall between them—a wall eerily similar to the one Ethan had constructed.
Putting on her best conciliatory voice, she said, “I’m sorry. I’ve got a lot on my mind. What did you need to discuss?”
The huffed sigh indicated her ruffled feathers had been placated. “I needed to let you know we won’t be able to fly out until Thursday. Your father has a business emergency he has to attend to.”
No big surprise there. Her father’s work always took precedence over everything and everyone. They’d barely made it out for Grace’s funeral, and they certainly hadn’t been available for Clare to lean on when she’d needed them most. If there was one thing she and Ethan had gotten right, it was putting their family before their careers.
That wasn’t to say there weren’t times she didn’t long for the financial security of her childhood. But growing up with wealth and privilege carried a burden, and it was one she’d walked away from with no regrets. Still, after more than two decades of struggle, she’d come to appreciate how much easier life was when you had money.
“That’s not a problem, Mom. Just let me know when your flight arrives and either Ethan or I will pick you up.”
“I thought Jack was picking us up?”
“That was when you were coming in tomorrow. He has a test on Thursday he needs to study for.” Fear threaded its way through her. That was also before Clare had learned about her son’s drinking and driving incident.
A disappointed “oh” drifted over the line.
“You’ll have all weekend to see him.”
Here it came. Reason number five thousand, three hundred and thirty-six why they’d have to leave immediately after they set Grace’s headstone.
“I’m afraid we won’t be able to stay as long as we’d planned.”
Clare’s silence spoke for her.
“Clare, are you there?”
“I’m here, Mom.”
“Don’t you have anything to say?”
“What is there to say? You can’t get here until the last minute, and you have to leave right away. Doesn’t that pretty much sum it up?”
They’d abandoned her after Grace’s death, so why should she expect them to support her when they set the headstone? Why couldn’t they see how much she needed them, how hard this was for her? It had taken a year to get Ethan to agree to the simple ceremony, and she wanted her parents here, needed their support. An unrealistic expectation she knew, but she still hoped her parents would change.
Her mother’s affirmative response sounded defeated, and Clare experienced another wave of guilt.
“I’d better let you get to work. I’ll see you Thursday.”
Clare said goodbye, and tossed the phone onto the passenger seat. She started the car, and another wave of tears threatened. Ruthlessly, she pushed them aside and focused on work—the one thing in her life she could control. The one thing that gave her some semblance of comfort.
If a problem arose, she could fix it, unlike the strained relationship with her parents. Unlike her marriage. Those were far more complicated than photography.
The road narrowed and made a series of sharp turns as Clare ascended into the mountains. She maneuvered the curves with practiced competency. She climbed to Parker Pass, a stunning elevation of over six thousand feet.
A narrow shaft of sunlight slanted through the heavy canopy of cedar, fir and tamarack trees and reflected off the windshield. Her breath caught as she recalled the first time Ethan brought her up here. These mountains had always been a magical place for her. A place where she’d made love to Ethan the first time, told him she loved him, conceived Grace here. They held the happiest moments of her life and she craved their solitude and peace now when her world was shattered. Maybe it was even a place to heal and why she continued to return.
She pushed aside the past and focused on the photo shoot. She hoped she hadn’t missed out on what Galen Rowell, the famed outdoor photographer, called that unexpected convergence of light and form.
Over the years, Clare had discovered that her mantra “follow the light” had resulted in some of her finest work.
She envisioned this same ray of glowing yellow light angling through the trees at the photo shoot she was headed to as it cut through fluffy white clouds to a faint mist rising off the Serenity River.
The blast of an air horn snapped Clare’s attention back to the road. A logging truck bore down on her. She slammed on the brakes and swerved hard to the right.
The SUV skidded on the graveled shoulder.
Clare’s scream echoed across the mountain as the car spun out of control and followed the light into the canyon.