“Good question.” Her gaze darted to his arms.
“I never did heroin, if that’s what you’re curious about.”
“No. My drug of choice was oxy. I had this buddy in high school who introduced me to it. His father dealt the stuff in a major way. Looking back with the hindsight of an adult, I realize that I was pretty depressed and frustrated. I was the only kid left at home by that point, and my Mom wasn’t well. We didn’t know at the time she had cancer. I thought she was worn out from taking care of my dad and didn’t have any energy left for me. No one was really on top of things at that point.”
“So you were alone with two very sick parents. How old were you?”
“I’m sorry that happened to you.” Her voice held too much sympathy for his comfort.
“I didn’t mean to unload on you.”
“That’s what real friends are for.”
Mac did not want to be friends with Stella.
She slid her hands to the top of the steering wheel and drummed her fingers. “Did you belong to NA?”
Mac watched the blur of trees pass by. “I tried it, but sharing my problems with strangers never appealed to me. My brother, Lee, the one who was killed last year, dragged me to my mother’s deathbed and made me swear to her that I’d straighten out. Later, anytime I felt tempted, I’d visit her grave.”
Grief bloomed in Mac’s chest. His mom’s illness and death had torn him apart. Except for Lee’s funeral last year, he hadn’t been to the cemetery in years. Because he hadn’t needed to be reminded of his promise? Or because he couldn’t bear to be reminded of her death? He was dreading the Colonel’s funeral.
“Are you sure you want to go out here with me?” Stella’s concerned gaze felt like a touch. Or perhaps that was wishful thinking on his part.
“I’ll be fine.” He certainly didn’t want her going alone. His memory of Adam Miller reacting to her questions was too fresh, as was the bruise on her face.
For a guy who never had much of a temper, Mac was feeling uncharacteristically violent. Stella brought out his uncivilized side, not that it was buried all that deep.
He was sure Stella was trained in hand-to-hand, and in no way did Mac think women were weak. His sister was one of the toughest people he knew. But he couldn’t control the urge to protect Stella. The emotions stirring in his chest worried him. He could get attached to her. He had enough commitment issues with his family, and Scarlet Falls was a huge pot of bad luck for him. Did she feel something for him? And if she did, how could he walk away from the potential?
The highway narrowed to two lanes. They passed meadows and patches of woods. Ten minutes later, Stella turned down a forest-lined gravel lane. They passed a lake and an old stone barn set back off the road.
The lane ended in a tight clearing. A split rail fence defined the parking area. The main lodge was a two-story cedar rectangle with a deep, covered porch. Appropriately, Adirondack chairs were grouped around low tables. Two men playing chess looked up as Mac and Stella got out of the car. The New Life Center for Hope looked more like a resort than a rehab facility.
They went up the steps and crossed the porch. Mac held the door for Stella. In the reception area, a thirty-year-old man typed on a computer. A folder lay open on the desk.
“Can I help you?” He said in a southern accent as he closed the folder. A brass plaque on the front of his desk read Reilly Warren.
Stella showed her badge. “Detective Dane. I have an appointment to see Dr. Randolph.”
Reilly glanced at his phone. A red light blinked. “He’s on a call, but he should be done in a few minutes.”
Stella ignored the row of chairs in the lobby. “How long have you worked here?”
“Three years.” Reilly folded his hands on his blotter.
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here.” Mac picked up a pamphlet from a wall rack.
Reilly straightened his row of office supplies. “I’m from Atlanta.”
Stella flashed him a warm smile. “Do you like working for Dr. Randolph?”
He adjusted the position of his stapler a millimeter. “Yes.”
“The center is highly recommended.” Mac tucked the brochure back into its slot.
“Josh is good at what he does,” Reilly said.
“But patients relapse, right?” Stella sounded innocent as she pried information out of the admin.
Reilly straightened a stack of Post-it packs. “Josh can only do so much.” He glanced at the phone. The red light had gone out. “He’s done.” Reilly slid out of his chair. Then he carefully lined up the armrests with his keyboard tray before straightening. “Follow me.”
He led them down a carpeted hall, then knocked and opened a door. “Detective Dane is here to see you, Josh.”
“Thanks, Reilly,” a male voice responded. “Please show her in.”
Mac followed Stella into the office. Behind a mahogany desk, a leather chair faced a sleek laptop. A tall, lean man rose. About forty and fit, he wore jeans, an Earth Day T-shirt, and trail running shoes. His dark hair was a half inch past needing a cut, and wire-rimmed glasses gave him a nerdy look. He rounded the desk.
Stella introduced Mac. “Mr. Barrett is assisting with my investigation.” Her tone warmed. “I must say, Dr. Randolph, you’re not exactly what I expected. I was expecting someone more . . . formal.”
Was it wrong for Mac to be instantly jealous over the smile Stella gave the doc?
“Formal doesn’t help people relax.” The doctor gestured to a circle of leather chairs in the corner. “Please, call me Josh.”
“The center looks like a mountain lodge.” Mac eased his body into a low-slung seat. He wasn’t sure if fancy digs would have helped or hindered his own recovery. The utilitarian decor of the center he’d attended had made the process feel serious. Rehab was not a vacation.
“I don’t see any reason for people to be uncomfortable while they recover.” Josh removed his glasses and polished the lenses on the hem of his shirt. “People come here voluntarily. They should feel good about their decision to make their lives whole again.”
Mac took in the expensive-looking, modern furniture. “You don’t take insurance, do you?”
Josh shook his head. “No. All my clients pay privately. This is a small facility. I prefer to keep it that way.”
So what motivated the doctor? Money?
“Why do you do this?” Mac asked.
Josh sighed. “When I was a teenager, my older brother died of an overdose. He’d suffered from depression all his life. Drugs were his escape.”
“I can understand that.” The words slipped out of Mac’s mouth before he could stop them, but the doctor’s words had struck a nerve.
The doctor’s gaze was too sharp. Too understanding.
Mac shifted his position in the chair. “You want to prevent others from the same fate.”
“That’s the idea.” Josh smiled.
Stella leaned forward, clasped her hands, and rested her forearms on her knees. “I want to talk to you about Missy Green. She was a patient of yours?”
“Yes. I was sorry to hear of her death.” Josh replaced his glasses. “How can I help you?”
Stella tilted her head. “You treated Missy for addiction, but she was recovered, right?”
“Yes, but addiction doesn’t end when someone checks out of this facility,” Josh said. “The first step toward recovery is committing to a life-long treatment plan.”
“Did Missy ever relapse?” Stella asked.
“A few times.” Josh crossed his ankle over his knee. “But most patients will relapse at some point. Recovery tends to be a forward-and-back process. There are inevitable stumbling blocks on every patient’s road.”
Stella’s lips thinned. “That doesn’t sound promising.”
“It’s important that the patient not view a relapse as failure but as an experience he or she can learn and grow from.” Josh rested his hand on his calf. “Building self-esteem is an important part of controlling addiction.”
She leaned forward. “Most people would say why not let them destroy themselves.”
“That’s not an option. Addiction doesn’t only hurt the user,” Josh said.
Which was why Mac had devoted his life to stopping drugs before they hit US soil.
“When was the last time you saw Missy?” Stella asked.
“I saw Missy just a few weeks ago, and she seemed to be using her coping mechanisms well. She’d borrowed money for her treatment. During our last session, she decided that once she finished paying her debt, she was going to attend community college. This was the first time she’d looked that far ahead in her life. I thought the new direction was promising.”
“What about cutting?” Stella asked.
“Missy had a period of self-harm when she first came home from California. We dealt with it during her stay. As far as I know, she hadn’t done it since.”
Stella took a small tablet from her purse and made a note. “You saw Missy here after her inpatient program was finished?”
“No. Missy didn’t want to borrow more money, I run a few therapy groups for local charities.” Josh glanced at Mac. “I’m not completely materialistic.”
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