The sun set late mid-June in the Pacific Northwest. Ordinarily going on eight in the evening looked more like five p.m. did back in Concord, New Hampshire, where Hayley Prescott had lived since college. But in the final seven miles before the turnoff to her hometown of Gravers Bend, Washington, branches from the immense evergreens lining the highway met in a tangle overhead to form a tunnel-like effect that created a false dusk. She drove through the long dim stretch with the top down, greedily inhaling the Douglas fir and pine scenting the cool air blowing her hair around her head.
Her final year in Gravers Bend had totally sucked, but she never denied it was a beautiful, beautiful little corner of the world that sometimes smelled so divine it could bring tears to your eyes. The notoriety that hounded her back then had kept her from coming back for anything lengthier than a flying visit. The last time was three years ago in the wake of her mom’s unexpected death. But more than twelve years had passed since high school and she’d discovered in that time real trouble was having your husband murdered and finding yourself the center of a media circus.
Anticipation began to build in her chest, because she would soon see Kurstin McAlvey nee Olivet. Kurstie was the closest thing to family she had left, and she needed her right now. Quite desperately, she needed her.
The old Pontiac's engine faltered and choked as she took a left off the highway. It hesitated on the edge of a stall, and she held her breath. Then the engine smoothed itself out and she exhaled in relief. Hang in there, she exhorted silently, sparing a quick glance at the odometer. Only five and a half miles to go.
The lake road’s winding length was less thickly forested, and shafts of sunshine speared through gaps in the branches overhead, dappling the hood of her car and the asphalt beneath her wheels. Then, as she rounded Devil's Outcrop, the forest dropped away on the shore side and there, spread out in all its glory, was Lake Meredith.
On impulse she cranked the wheel and the car swerved off the road onto the scenic overlook. Before the car quit rocking on its shocks, she’d begun double guessing herself. What on earth was she doing? Time was getting on and there wasn’t much point in stopping here—she didn’t even dare turn off the engine for fear it would refuse to start again.
Then she shrugged and switched off the Oldies station that had been fading in and out for the past several miles. The Cowboy Junkies died in mid-static crackle.
Immediately, the peaceful hush of her surroundings, the quiet lap of water against the pebbled shore below, seeped into her soul, soothing her. So, big deal, she wouldn't turn the engine off. And why not take a moment? This lake held a lot of personal history for her.
Hunched over forearms crossed atop the steering wheel, she propped her chin on her uppermost one and narrowed her eyes against the glare coming off the water. Buttery sunlight flooded the lookout, shining unimpeded from over the treetops across the lake and glittering off the myriad wavelets feathering the water's surface. Its heat baked her through the windshield while the shade at her back chilled her shoulders.
A tourist would look at Lake Meredith and see spectacular scenery with the added potential for a photo op or two. Hayley looked at it and saw the first eighteen years of her life. She had rowed boats and water skied on this lake. Gone skinny dipping with Kurstin. She’d traversed the train trestle across Big Bear Gap with her best friend and drunk beer at illicit bonfire-lit keggers with Kurstie and assorted schoolmates.
Lost her virginity on a blanket in the woods with Jon-Michael Olivet.
Heart inexplicably pounding, she stuffed her memories back into a compartment in the rear of her mind and determinedly sealed it. The Pontiac's engine throbbed warningly and she pressed her foot against the accelerator to feed it the measure of fuel she had learned through trial and error would stop it from stalling. Easing the gearshift cautiously into reverse, she backed onto the lake road again, and pointed the hood toward Kurstin's. Just an other mile or so, she mentally assured her clunker of a car, reaching to pat its cracked, imitation-leather dashboard. Do not die on me now.
Everything she owned was packed in the trunk or thrown on the back seat of her car. If worse came to worst, she was now at least within walking distance of Kurstin's house. She would rather forego the pleasure of finishing her journey on foot, though. Coming home again after twelve and a half years of keeping her distance had been a tough enough decision as it was. She preferred not to arrive on Kurstin's doorstep like some ragtag Gypsy queen, her ratty little pile of belongings piled at her feet.
Easing the Pontiac along the twisting shore road on the final leg of her journey, she noted the development that had taken place along Lake Meredith since her last visit. It was surprisingly minor given the growth rate of other areas she'd seen along the way. She’d give decent odds, however, that it chapped the bejesus out of Kurstin's father’s hide. Richard had always felt rather proprietary about the area.
Hayley swallowed a snicker. Rather proprietary…that was good. Renaming it Lake Olivet would have seemed reasonable to Richard.
The Olivet estate hadn’t changed in the least. Hayley brought the Pontiac to a full stop at the apex of the circular drive, rammed the gearshift into park, then simply sat a moment looking up at the back of the rose-brick mansion.
Everything was precisely as she remembered. The lushly manicured, fully landscaped grounds still rolled between stands of trees down to the lake. The same black shutters framed sparkling windows, and oversized terracotta pots of flowers still flanked the kitchen door painted the same black enamel. Slowly, Hayley reached for the ignition key and turned it off, rolling her eyes in disgust when the engine continued to cough and chug and struggle to shut itself down.
Nothing like making a memorable entrance.
The back door banged open and her oldest and dearest friend came running across the brick patio. "Oh God, Oh God, you’re here!" Kurstin screamed.
A laugh exploded out of Hayley's throat and she threw her door open, clambering out of the car. She didn't get two steps before she was engulfed in the welcome warmth of her best friend's arms.
They clung to each other for a long moment before Kurstin finally pulled back. Holding Hayley at arm's length, she inspected her from head to toe. "I thought you would never get here," she exclaimed. "I left work at noon because I was positive you’d arrive early."