Her Last Goodbye Page 9

Stick. Carrot.

How long would it take her to make the connection?

Would she remember all the rules he’d given her? Though the severity of the lesson was unintended, her progress pleased him.

He glanced back at the locked door. He’d left her naked, shivering, and cringing in pain. The cot and blanket sat just outside the door, waiting. At the first sign of acquiescence, the simple comforts would be returned, and step one in her transformation would be complete.

He tossed her socks onto the fire and added more dead leaves and dry sticks. The flames reached higher. The fire crackled.

She needed to be completely devoted to him. She must completely let go of the life she’d left behind. She was already beautiful and intelligent—when he was finished with her, she would be perfect.

Next, he’d push her even further.

He rubbed his hands together over the fire. He couldn’t wait to continue. But he must be patient. She’d need some time to recover. To reflect on her behavior.

To realize the fruitlessness of any efforts to defy him.

To give up and give herself fully to him.

Chapter Eight

Lance skimmed through the remaining documents in Chelsea’s file. Nothing jumped out at him. He closed the file on the card table in his office and sat back, letting the information sink into his head.

Sharp walked into the room. “I made you a shake.” He handed Lance a nasty-looking green concoction.

“I will never get used to the way these look.” Lance held up the glass and stared at the thick green liquid.

After he’d been shot in the thigh and almost died last year, his recovery had been long, painful, and frustrating. He’d gone back to the police force only to quit when his leg didn’t hold up. He’d wallowed in pity at home, seeing little progress with his rehabilitation, until Sharp had convinced him to join his PI firm—and to try his organic-crunchy lifestyle. Several months after Lance had embraced his boss’s way of life, his leg was mostly healed.

He doubted it would ever be 100 percent, but he could do most of the things he enjoyed. He’d even returned to coaching the hockey team for at-risk youths he’d volunteered with when he’d been on the police force.

Now instead of heading to the bar when he was stressed, Lance downed a green protein shake and went to bed early.

He was quite the party animal.

“Luckily, these drinks taste better than they look.” Lance no longer questioned the ingredients. He’d learned his lesson and simply drank whatever his boss handed him.

To be fair, Sharp was more than his boss. After he’d been unable to find Lance’s father, he’d taken ten-year-old Lance under his wing. Over the years, Sharp had driven him to hockey practice, given him the sex talk, and taught him to drive. He was the closest thing to a father Lance had.

Sharp took the empty glass back. “Ready to head over to Tim’s house?”

Lance stood and reached for the flannel shirt he’d draped over his chair. “Yes. Want to ride along? We should get a good look at the wife’s personal space.”

“Let’s go.” Sharp fetched a jacket from his office.

Lance went to the closet and grabbed a high-capacity USB drive, then met Sharp and Morgan in the foyer.

“I’m off to see the sheriff.” She slung her giant purse over one shoulder. She’d changed into what Lance called her lawyer uniform: a fitted navy-blue suit, white silk blouse, heels, and pearls. They all went outside together, and Sharp locked up the office.

Lance thought about kissing her goodbye, but the gesture felt awkward. Their relationship felt awkward, especially in front of Sharp. Instead, Lance said, “Good luck.”

They parted on the sidewalk. Lance watched her walk away. The skirt and heels did magical things to her legs. She was all at once ladylike, professional, and unbelievably hot.

At least she was to him.

Morgan got into her minivan and drove off. Lance and Sharp settled in Lance’s Jeep.

“What’s going on between you two?” Sharp said before he’d even fastened his seat belt.

“It’s hard to quantify.” Lance started the engine and pulled away from the curb. “Her grandfather has been sick. She has her hands full, and we both know my mom is a lot to manage.”

Sharp stared over the console. “Stop overthinking. You are not going to find another woman like that one. Make time for her. Do not fuck this up.”

“That isn’t my goal.”

“You can’t possibly manage every single piece of your mother’s life forever. You’re entitled to some happiness.”

“I know.” But it didn’t feel that simple. His mother’s mental health and physical safety required a delicate balance of medication, routine, and vigilance. He’d slacked off during college, and she’d needed inpatient treatment to get back on track. Since then, he’d erred on the side of micromanaging, but that didn’t allow much room for a social life.

They drove the rest of the way in silence.

Chelsea and Tim lived in a quiet subdivision. As Lance turned the Jeep onto their street, he slowed to drive around a couple pushing a baby stroller. Ten feet ahead of them, a small child pedaled a tricycle. At three o’clock in the afternoon, grade school-aged kids swarmed a play lot in the center of the cul-de-sac.

Lance parked in front of Tim’s house. It was a nice starter home, small but generally well kept. The lawn needed raking, but Lance supposed Tim had had little time or interest in yard work since his wife had vanished.

Two sedans were parked in the driveway, the Toyota that Tim had driven to Sharp Investigations and a late-model Dodge sedan.

Tim answered the door and let them into the house.

“Has the press been hounding you?” Sharp asked.

“They hung around the first day, then they seemed to lose interest.” Tim ushered Lance and Sharp into the kitchen. Suitcases crowded a corner of the adjoining family room. “My in-laws just arrived. I don’t know how I survived the last few days without them.”

He introduced them to a couple in their late fifties.

Chelsea’s mother, Patricia, was a tall, fit blonde woman who looked as if she could still hike all day. She wore black yoga pants and a sweater that ended midthigh. She had the sleeping baby draped over one cloth-covered shoulder while she rubbed his back in a circular motion.

Chelsea’s dad, Randall, sat at the kitchen table with a little girl of about three perched on his lap. Lance assumed the child was Tim and Chelsea’s oldest. Bella and her grandfather were working on a large-piece puzzle.

“We’d like to ask you both a few questions,” Sharp said.

Dark circles and worry lined Patricia’s eyes as she nodded. She glanced at the little girl on her husband’s knee, clearly concerned about the child overhearing the upcoming conversation. “Tim, maybe you could take Bella and William to the playground.”

“Yay.” The little girl jumped off her grandfather’s lap.

Tim did not appear to share his daughter’s enthusiasm, but he simply said, “Good idea. Bella, get your coat and shoes. I’ll put William in the stroller.”

Bella skipped out of the room. The sounds of Tim getting the children ready floated back from the hallway. Bella chattered. The front door opened and closed.

After Tim and the children left, Patricia sat next to her husband at the kitchen table. The older couple joined hands, their fingers intertwining in a show of solidarity Lance admired. This was the way marriages were supposed to work. Couples should lean on each other.

“We usually stay in a hotel. The house is small. But this time . . .” Patricia said, “Tim needs help.”

“When was the last time you talked to your daughter?” Sharp settled across from Randall.

Lance took the chair opposite Patricia.

A tear leaked from Patricia’s eye. “Chelsea calls us almost every day. I spoke to her Friday morning.” She pressed a clenched fist to her mouth. “She was looking forward to going out that night.”

The poor woman.

“How was her mood? Did anything seem off?” Lance swallowed his pity and pushed aside memories of his own mother’s confusion and grief after his father disappeared. More than two decades later, he could still see her as clear as day in his mind. The tears, the dark circles, the pale skin.

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