Why did she talk to male friends? Wasn’t he enough?
Why couldn’t he tag along when she went out with her girlfriends? They were his friends too.
When she refused anything, he’d question and calmly engage her for hours, trying to convince her to see his side. He loved her, he treated her like a queen. Why shouldn’t she do some little things to help him feel more secure in their relationship?
It became easier to do as he asked to avoid the emotionally draining, hours-long conversations. Over time she learned to walk on eggshells around him, trying to keep him happy and content.
The constant scrutiny drove up her stress levels and wore her down. She realized she could no longer live under the same roof with him and asked for a divorce.
He was insecure. It wasn’t her responsibility to cater to it.
He moved to the debris pile and kicked at an old roofing tile. “I hate this place,” he said. “I don’t like what it represents. Your life turned upside down that day.”
“It did.” As if I’m not fully aware. An acidic taste of anger filled her mouth.
He looked back at her, his eyes dark. “I worry about you.”
She controlled her shiver. “I’m fine. I like the quiet here.”
“You can find quiet in a place where your dad was murdered and your house burned down?”
Jerk. He’d said it deliberately, wanting to twist the knife in her heart under the guise of concern.
“It’s true.” Keep answers short.
“Your whole life went down a new path. Your sister left and then your mom died.”
He sank the knife to its hilt.
She silently counted as she inhaled and exhaled, pacing her breaths, keeping her calm.
“I assume you still haven’t heard from Tara.” He turned back to the house as he spoke.
“No. Have you looked for her?”
At the police station, Brett had access to search tools that the average citizen did not. But during their marriage, she’d never asked him to look. They’d rarely talked about Tara.
He and Tara had dated for several months during her senior year, breaking up only weeks before their father was murdered.
“No, I’ve never looked for her,” he said. “It’s none of my business. She broke up with me, remember? And she always talked about getting out of this shit town. She had her eyes on bigger things, so I’m not surprised she left us all behind.” He shrugged.
Emily didn’t believe that. Brett didn’t like that Tara had left without a backward glance at him. His insecurity kept him from understanding how that could happen to him.
She suspected he’d searched for her and failed.
But his ego wouldn’t allow him to admit it.
“Madison has researched extensively,” Emily stated, watching him. She’d learned to read him as carefully as he read her. During the last months of their marriage, they’d tentatively circled each other, each constantly guessing what the other was thinking, their verbal communication in the toilet. All trust gone.
“Oh. Good for her. Nothing, though?”
He’s too casual. He wants to know.
Does he still want her after all these years?
Emily was always second. Second sister. Second choice.
Deep down she’d known he didn’t love her enough—she was just another infatuated woman to bolster his insecurity—but she had chosen to ignore it. Instead she’d naively hoped to replace Tara in Brett’s heart.
Later she’d realized he didn’t hold Tara in his heart; he just couldn’t accept that she had dumped him. It turned into an obsession.
“Madison hasn’t found her. She thinks Tara changed her name.”
He nodded. “Makes sense.” He turned back to her, his gaze probing. “Want to get a cup of coffee?”
She stiffened. Nothing would be more uncomfortable. “No, I need to get back to the diner.”
“Okay. I’ll follow you out.”
Like hell you will. “Go ahead. I’m going to spend a few more minutes here. Memories, you know,” she said, scrambling for a reason to make him leave.
He studied her for a moment.
He was still attractive. Her brain recognized it even if her heart screamed for her to get away.
“Emily . . . we weren’t that bad together, were we?” He sounded apprehensive, but curious.
She couldn’t speak. Had time erased everything she’d explained to him?
His insecurity had turned her into a shadow of the independent woman she’d been. It’d taken over a year for her to find her confidence again.
“It’s been five years, Brett. I’m not going to start this discussion again. We said everything that needs to be said.”
He frowned. “I know, but—”
“No buts. Why waste time examining something that is long over?”
“But when we’re together—like now—it feels—”
“Wrong. It feels very, very wrong.” She glared, her eyes begging him to stop.
The corners of his lips sagged, and his brows came together, sending mild panic up her spine. Emily knew the signs. He was preparing to argue his point until she simply gave in, exhausted.
But they weren’t married anymore.
“Go home, Brett.” She turned away and raised one hand in farewell, hoping he’d take the hint. Not waiting to find out, she headed toward the tree line, passing through what used to be the backyard of the home. She walked blindly, her hearing attuned to the sound of his car door.
Relief swamped her as his door finally opened and closed. A moment later the engine started.
Thank you, God.
She hadn’t spoken to him in months. What on earth had prompted him to attempt a possible reconciliation today? Short-term memory loss?
Occasionally she’d see him drive through town—he still lived in Bartonville. She hated that her heart seized every time she saw an Astoria police SUV, and her head turned to see if it was him.
Their breakup had been ugly.
She slammed to a stop, and Brett vanished from her thoughts as she stared at the short tree trunk.
Years ago, after Chet Carlson was put away for her father’s murder, someone had cut down the tree. She’d never known who. She’d never asked, and no one ever brought it up. The destruction felt justified, and no doubt it had been a healing moment for someone. She’d long suspected one of her great-aunts had cut down the tree.
But seeing the stump was always a shock.
She passed the stump and walked into the firs. Wind rustled through their branches, making the colossal trees gently sway. The ground was soaked. Weeks of continual rain had turned this entire tip of the state into a sodden site. She stopped and rested a hand on a trunk, feeling the vibrations in the bark as it swayed. Out of habit she scanned the ground around the trees, looking for cracks, signs the wind had loosened the root ball of one of the giant trees. It was rare for one of the trees to fall, but a strong windstorm after weeks of rain could cause a disaster.
She’d seen homes crushed by the immense trees. Her mother had always worried about falling firs when they lived in the little house. She’d often walked the woods, looking for cracks after heavy rains and wind.
Firs hadn’t been the end of the home.
Her throat grew thick, and she couldn’t swallow. Tears threatened, and she let them roll. No one was here to see her. No prying eyes or pointed questions to answer. She leaned against a fir and allowed herself to feel. Feel the pain and loss and rage at the destruction of her family. It erupted, swamping her, and she bent at the waist, wrapping her arms around her abdomen. She’d lost her father and her home, and then Tara, and then her mother. A domino effect that had started with her father’s violent death.
Fifteen seconds later, the avalanche of emotions was gone, leaving her drained, with sweat at her temples and gasping for air. A headache threatened at the base of her skull, and her legs felt like weak twigs. This wasn’t the first time she’d fallen apart in this place.
It was one of the reasons she stayed away.
She shuddered and looked about, spotting the stump through the firs.
The rest of the forest faded away as she stared at the blemish among the wild growth.
Something happened here, the stump said.
Something deadly. Something final. Something irrevocable.
Chet Carlson had received a life sentence for her father’s murder, and the punishment was a small bandage on her damaged heart. It helped. But it didn’t heal.
There was no one to punish for her mother’s suicide. Emily blamed Chet Carlson, but she knew her mother and the adults who had claimed to love her mother shared a bit of the fault too. The passage of time had applied tentative protection around her pain. Sometimes the protection held fast; other times it let pain seep through.
Right now the pain seeped, inflamed by the sight of the home’s pathetic remains.
And the resurgent memory of Tara’s betrayal.
A phone call from Seth Rutledge, the medical examiner, delayed Zander’s plans to pay a visit to the Osburne brothers.
Dr. Rutledge caught Zander in the parking lot of Patrick’s Place. He said he had preliminary findings from the autopsies of Sean and Lindsay Fitch. Zander joined Sheriff Greer in his county SUV, squeezing under the computer and monitor that stuck out over half of the passenger seat—a typical annoyance for the front of a law enforcement vehicle—and put his phone on speaker.