Faraway sirens cut through the crackle of the flames.
Emily shuddered. The cold wind from that night penetrated her bones every time she remembered. She recalled going back in the house, coughing in the smoke, and waking Madison and her mother to get them out of the home. The three of them had gone out the front door and huddled in the front yard. She’d been too petrified to say what she’d seen behind the house.
She told the police she’d been asleep until the smoke woke her.
Tara didn’t show up until midmorning. The police had gone to pick her up from her friend’s home and break the news.
Emily had watched her older sister cry over their father, waiting for her to say she’d been in the yard that night. But Tara never mentioned being at the scene, and so Emily didn’t bring it up. She figured that Tara must have had her reasons for the silence, and Emily knew she would also protect whatever her sister wanted to keep quiet.
The family was never the same.
Tara and her mother fought more, and five days after her father was killed, Tara announced she was moving to Portland to be with friends. More yelling, more arguments. She vanished the next day. No goodbyes.
Emily felt abandoned. Another hole shot through her heart. Tara had left before Emily found the courage to ask her about the night their father died. Tara’s secret left with her. Was it incriminating? Would it implicate someone? Was that person Tara?
To protect her sister, Emily stayed silent too.
Brenda seemed to crawl inside herself. A few days later, their mother took her own life.
Emily was broken. The foundations of her family were gone.
Emily stepped up, shouldering responsibility for her younger sister, desperate to protect the last family member she had.
The two younger sisters were fortunate to have three loving great-aunts who were determined to give them the support their mother no longer could. The mansion became their home. A safe place.
Many years later, Emily escaped to the mansion again after her marriage disintegrated. Her heart was broken and her psyche desperate for a place to rest and recover. The huge house was the rock where she always felt secure.
After the deaths, Madison had never left the mansion. She flitted from job to job and man to man. The last two years at the diner had been the longest she’d ever held a job.
Emily never knew what was going on in Madison’s head. Her sister wasn’t one to share her feelings. As a kid, Madison had seemed to never stop talking, her nose in everyone’s business, always bursting with crazy ideas. But she’d changed after her parents died. Madison pulled inside herself, the gregarious child suddenly silent. Now Emily saw the old Madison only in her outlandish sense of style: the hats, the heels, the tulle, the tiaras. But before the deaths, she’d been called her mother’s mini-me, a reflection of her mother’s personality and looks.
Their mother had been spontaneous. She’d keep the girls home from school so they could escape to the beach and study the tide pools and stuff themselves with saltwater taffy. They would have impromptu dance parties in the living room, her mother blasting the music of the Spice Girls and Chumbawamba.
She loved us.
Why did she leave us?
Anger and resentment flared. She and her sisters had been children, too young to understand their mother’s inconsistent behavior. But the adults around her knew she struggled with manic depression and refused all help. After multiple rejections, no one did anything more. No one told her to see a doctor. No one interfered.
Would she still be here if she’d been treated?
Emily shoved away the moot question. Her mother was gone.
Emily stopped at the window. Zander Wells was striding toward his SUV. She watched, her mind numb. He turned back to look at the home, and Emily stumbled back from the window. It was doubtful he’d seen her spying on him, but her face heated anyway. From a safe distance she noticed him scowl at the house. Her fingers grew icy.
She had no doubt he’d discover who murdered Lindsay and Sean. She’d seen and felt the determination of Special Agent Zander Wells. He was sharp. Thorough. And seemed to genuinely care about the victims. She suspected he didn’t have many unsolved cases.
But how much of her family’s dirty laundry would be exposed along the way?
It was after 1:00 a.m. when Emily heard the stairs creak under Madison’s feet as she crept up to the second level. There was no silent place to step on most of the stairs. Emily had searched and experimented for years. Skipping five steps in a row wasn’t an option, no matter how long her legs grew. Her bedroom was the closest to the stairs, and no one came or went without her knowing. There was a narrow servants’ staircase from the kitchen, but it was even noisier and easily heard from their aunts’ bedrooms.
The main stairs had always been the best choice.
Feeling like a mother, Emily got out of bed and opened her door, watching as Madison unsteadily took the last step and held hard to the newel post. Filtered light from the streetlamp backlit her sister, creating a clear silhouette. Madison’s shoes were in one hand. She’d changed out of the tulle skirt and into jeans at some point.
Emily wondered at whose house. “Hey.”
Madison unsuccessfully choked back a gasp. “Jeez. Don’t do that,” she said in a loud whisper, glaring at Emily in the dim light.
Emily stepped back into her room, holding the door open. Madison gave a grumbling sigh and followed. Emily closed the door behind her.
“What?” Madison clasped her shoes tight to her chest and looked down her nose at Emily. An admirable feat considering Emily was several inches taller. The scent of tequila filled the room, and Emily tamped down her temper. Her sister must have been at Patrick’s Place. A local bar she often used for escape.
Emily wished Madison would open her heart to her instead of seeking comfort with strangers.
“You have to open the diner in the morning.” Emily knew that was the wrong way to start this conversation.
“I know! I don’t plan to be late.”
“You’ve slept through entire shifts,” Emily stated. “Did you plan those?”
“I don’t need this.” Madison turned to leave.
“Wait. That’s not why—”
“I know,” Madison said, glancing back at her. “It’s about Lindsay. Why do you think I’m so late?” She sucked in a shuddering breath.
Empathy filled Emily. They all mourned Lindsay, but the loss of her friend had to be a deeper shock for Madison.
“Down at Patrick’s Place, they’re saying Sean was hanged,” Madison whispered. She met Emily’s gaze. “Is that true?” Her voice quivered, and even in the poor light Emily saw the terror in her sister’s eyes.
This is why I didn’t tell her any details.
“Yes, it’s true, but he was stabbed first. That may have been what actually killed him.”
“Oh God.” Madison clasped a hand over her eyes, her shoulders slumping. “I can see it. It won’t go away.”
Emily touched her arm. “I understand. It’s all I can see too.”
“It’s not Sean I see.” Madison’s whisper was nearly inaudible.
“I know.” Her heart cracked. Emily would do anything to take away the sight in her sister’s head.
And her own.
The sisters rarely talked about their parents’ deaths. It was a taboo topic in their home. One best swept under the rug so they could pretend it had never happened. Because dwelling on it would take over their minds and hearts, keeping everything else out.
“I wish Mom was here.” Emily strained to hear Madison’s hushed words. “Or Tara.”
Tara’s face flashed in Emily’s mind. Eternally eighteen.
She is nearly forty now.
The old sense of abandonment pushed on a door in Emily’s mind, and she said nothing.
Madison lowered her hand, and her eyes glittered in the dark. “You don’t care, do you? You don’t miss them at all,” she hissed.
“That’s not fair—”
“You barely say a word about either one. Our sister is out there somewhere, and you won’t talk to me about her.”
“I’ve looked for her,” Madison said. “You change the topic every time I talk about her.”
“She knows where to find us. We’ve never left this town. If she wanted to be part of this family, she’d be here. I’m not going to waste my time searching for someone who doesn’t want to see us.”
She deliberately threw out the last sentence, wanting to shock Madison into silence.
Emily pressed her lips shut. She’d said enough.
But flames still shot from Madison’s eyes. Emily knew how to calm them.
“Remember when Dad would pile us in the car and just take off for a long weekend?” Emily said softly. “Just the four of us so Mom could have some kid-free time. We never knew where we were going, but Dad made friends everywhere. The Redwoods. Pendleton. Portland. That wild animal place in southern Oregon . . .”
“Wildlife Safari,” Madison added wistfully. “I touched a giraffe’s tongue. Dad wasn’t supposed to put the car window down, but he did.”
“The animals came right up to the car.”
“Bears and tigers. Elephants.”