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FOUR AND ONE-HALF YEARS LATER
Marissa Gray strapped her seat belt, turned the key in the ignition, and glared at the large, fluffy flakes of snow cascading on her windshield. "Oh, great," she muttered angrily.
"What's wrong?" Marissa looked at her beautiful older sister, Catherine, rapping insistently on the closed passenger's window. "Are you too scared to drive?" Catherine called.
Marissa pushed the automatic opener and the window purred halfway down. "I'm not scared, Catherine; I'm pissed off. The snow is falling faster, I'm the reporter who was supposed to be at the Addison party ten minutes ago, and I haven't even left home!"
"Oh, to heck with the Addisons." Catherine's long brown hair blew in the wind and her eyebrows pulled together above her light blue-green eyes. "Evelyn Addison wants you there early so she can name every single gourmet dish at the buffet and have that new photographer take her picture alone with the magnificent Christmas tree—no annoying guests trying to crowd into the shot. Of course, that's if she hasn't gotten too wide to entirely block the tree from the photo."
Marissa laughed. "Shame on you! She's our esteemed mayor's wife. Where's your respect?"
"It vanished when you said you were driving to the Addison house in your ridiculously small, convertible sports car."
"I have enough sense to put up the car top, Catherine."
"The tops of most convertibles aren't as sturdy as those of hardtop cars and you know it. Besides, a blizzard is coming."
"The weatherman didn't say anything about a blizzard. He said a heavy snow is predicted around two in the morning."
"Heavy snow is weatherman code for a blizzard, and of course well-behaved blizzards always arrive exactly when the weatherman predicts they will. James has a Lincoln with a very sturdy roof. Why don't you wait and go with us?"
"Oh, that would be fun," Marissa said dryly. "Me tagging along with my sister on a date. Besides, I told you I'm already late."
Catherine folded her sweater-covered arms. "I'm freezing!"
"Well, that's not my fault! You wouldn't be freezing if you'd go inside instead of standing in the driveway badgering me!" Marissa closed her eyes for a moment, fighting for patience. "Look, Catherine, this is our first Christmas since Mom died. Maybe we shouldn't have decided to spend it in the family home, but we did and now we both feel at sea. Everything is so different and not in a good way. You're twenty-eight, though, and I'm twenty-five. You're my older sister, not my big sister. You don't have to take care of me." Catherine didn't answer. "I know driving on snow terrifies you, but I'm only driving eight miles and I'm wearing my seat belt."
"You have to drive on the three worst miles of Falls Way to reach the Addisons'." Catherine sighed and looked beyond the car, batting her eyes against the snow. "I have a very bad feeling about you tonight, Marissa."
"Oh, Catherine!" Marissa burst out, then reminded herself she was speaking to the only remaining member of her immediate family—her sister, whom she'd always admired and loved. She softened her voice. "You worry about me too much, Catherine. You worry about everyone. It's endearing, but it must be exhausting for you. And frankly, trying not to worry you is exhausting for other people. You can't keep everyone at home under your wing like a mother bird. Can't you ease up at least one night?"
Catherine raised an eyebrow. "I never thought of myself as a mother bird. A crow?"
"A skylark. She makes the most beautiful song."
Catherine tilted her head, smiling. "When all else fails, try flattery. Okay, I guess I do clutch at other people, trying to hold them near me, as if I could keep anyone safe," she said grudgingly. "But it's so hard to shake these feelings of responsibility for you. Mom has been gone for only four months and Dad for three years. . . ."
Marissa had learned over the years that simple reason couldn't stop Catherine's worrying. Diversion was the only answer.
Marissa started with sincerity: "I promise not to drive too fast and to be extra careful. I'm not worried about the weather conditions and I'm looking forward to having a good time. This year the Addison Christmas party is supposed to be the biggest ever." Marissa paused and frowned, moving on to distraction. "But Catherine, you're having your very first date with James Eastman tonight and look at your hair! The curl is falling out and the ends are frizzing. It will look awful if you don't get inside and fix it before James comes."
Got her! Marissa thought as something close to panic flashed in Catherine's eyes. Catherine seemed to think she'd hidden the crush she'd had on James since she was a teenager. Marissa had always known, though, and now almost giggled that the thought of not looking perfect for her first date with James temporarily banished everything else from Catherine's serious mind.
"Oh my God!" Catherine usually pretended oblivion to her striking appearance. The act would have been shattered if anyone had witnessed her whipping her hair over her shoulder and looking at the damp strands in near horror. "Look at it! What'll I do?"
"Your hair isn't soaked. If you get inside immediately, you'll just have time to spray it and put it on large hot rollers for five minutes. Five minutes only!" Marissa ordered urgently.
"You don't think I need to wash it and start over?"
"Absolutely not. Just use the rollers and it will look beautiful." Still, Marissa couldn't resist adding, "Oh, I tried on Mom's pearls you were going to wear tonight, but I can't remember where I put them. You'll need to look for them."
"You can't remember!" Catherine cried in dismay.
"I'm sure you'll find them. Maybe I left them in my room. . . ."
"Honestly, Marissa, you're impossible! I don't know how you hold on to a job. Well, you should leave before the weather gets worse." Catherine was already rushing for the front door, grasping her wet hair, touching her throat as if searching for the pearls she feared she'd never see again. Marissa grinned. She'd placed the pearls in their padded velvet box on Catherine's dresser. "Bye," Catherine called absently over her shoulder. "Don't drive too fast. Be—"
The wind carried "careful" away just as the big front door slammed behind her.
She'll race up that staircase faster than the speed of light, Marissa thought, imagining Catherine's relief at discovering her addle-brained little sister hadn't stuck the pearls under the bed or in the refrigerator. Marissa knew that Catherine, who was finishing the last few months of internship needed to receive a license in clinical psychology, didn't truly think her sister was as capricious as she acted. Catherine's habitual fretting nearly drove the airy Marissa wild, though, and she couldn't resist occasionally pretending to be a complete fly-by-night, hoping the repetition would eventually break Catherine's habit of overreacting. Besides, within twenty minutes Catherine would be worrying about her again. Marissa knew overconcern was in Catherine's nature, a deep part of the way she loved.
Marissa closed the car window, then looked in the rear-view mirror for a quick appraisal of her own appearance. She'd long ago accepted that she wasn't a classic beauty like Catherine, but she could certainly hold her own. Her long dark blond hair, brightened at the stylist's with golden highlights, miraculously still held graceful waves in spite of its exposure to the brisk wind. No liner or mascara had smeared around what her mother called her "sapphire" eyes. Red lip gloss gave her a more glamorous look than the usual peach or pink without looking too harsh. So far, so good, Marissa thought in satisfaction. Now if she could just endure the party without spilling something on her pale blue dress or getting a run in her ridiculously expensive sheer stockings she would consider the evening a success.
Marissa turned up the car heater and began to back slowly down the slight incline of the driveway. Her red Mustang didn't feel quite as steady as usual, which meant a paper-thin sheet of ice had already frozen over the snow. If she'd left only fifteen minutes earlier, Marissa thought in annoyance, she could have descended the tricky driveway before the top layer of snow began freezing.
Marissa knew traffic would be light tonight with everyone already warned about the bad weather. Nevertheless, people would attend Evelyn and Wilfred Addison's Christmas party, which had become an institution in the city, even before Wilfred Addison's grandfather had been the mayor. The daunting Evelyn, whom Marissa was always tempted to call "Your Majesty," felt the only acceptable excuses for missing her party were death and perhaps a calamitous matter occurring in an intended guest's personal or business life that might make for awkward party chatter.
Evelyn Addison also expected full coverage of her party in the Aurora Falls Gazette. After a badly written brief article and one small, blurry picture had infuriated Evelyn last year, this year the editor had placated Evelyn by promising a longer article and assigning it to Marissa Gray. Marissa—a relatively new reporter at the Gazette—was a member of one of the few families in Aurora Falls that Evelyn considered equal in social standing to the Addisons. Evelyn had been friends with Marissa's parents and known the Gray girls all of their lives. Her affection for Marissa seemed to have jumped several notches when Marissa promised that this year the Gazette's new, award-winning photographer would be taking the pictures of the event.
Well, Evelyn should be pleased, Marissa thought as the steering wheel turned loosely on the icy road. I'm out here fighting the elements to reach her soiree in time. But it's my fault, she admitted mentally. If I hadn't changed my mind about my earrings at the last minute and misplaced my perfume, I'd be on time. Not that my appearance matters, she dismally reminded herself. Tonight was business. She hadn't gone on a date since returning home six months ago, and she doubted that Mr. Wonderful would magically appear at the Addison Christmas party in Aurora Falls.
Marissa looked in the rearview mirror for a glimpse of the falls she loved. In 1770 a handsome, wealthy, eccentric young man from New York named Sebastian Larke had organized an unofficial expedition south along the Orenda River, the third-largest river mapped in North America. Larke claimed he had a "calling" to find a sacred place he'd seen in a dream. The charismatic Larke had no trouble acquiring followers.
In the spring of 1771, the Larke expedition happened upon the falls. Record keepers of the trip wrote that on a June night they'd heard a distant roar that sounded like a waterfall near the Orenda River. Larke had insisted they make camp without going near the sound. Early the next morning, they had found Larke nearly half a mile away sitting beside wide, horseshoe-shaped falls later measured at a magnificent 124 feet high. According to one of the original journals, "the sun shone like a heavenly prism through the thick mist created by the plummeting water. Sebastian sat perilously near the edge of the falls, his eyes closed as glorious, golden sunlight surrounded him."
According to the journal, Sebastian had then confessed the Christian God had not sent him on this journey as he had let his followers assume. He claimed Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, had asked him to search for her sacred waterfall. Believing the beautiful waterfall he saw with the dawn light shimmering through the rushing water was the one for which he'd searched, Sebastian had promptly named it Aurora in her honor. He had then plucked a white multi-flora rose from one of the many hardy bushes growing nearby and dropped the rose into the falls as an offering.
Nearly a hundred people stayed with Sebastian even after learning they had not been following the orders of their Christian God. Sebastian had spent the next twenty years unmarried and devoted solely to building a village for both the Anglos and the Indians around the falls. Now Aurora Falls was one of the few major waterfalls in the United States not enclosed within a state park and Sebastian's village had become a city of over forty thousand people.
The story of Sebastian Larke had always intrigued Marissa, especially when she was young and imagined him movie-star handsome, idealistic, and heroic. She was certain he'd longed for someone to love—someone brave, loyal, and understanding of his imaginative spirit. Someone with dark blond hair, very blue eyes, skinny legs, and a birthmark on his left shoulder blade that resembled a waterfall if you looked at it nearly cross-eyed. Marissa laughed softly in remembrance of her fantasy. Now was not the time to keep glancing back at the magnificent falls lighted green, red, yellow, and blue for the holiday season, though. Headed out of town, away from the lights of close-spaced houses, Marissa knew she needed to concentrate on the road, which was becoming more slippery by the minute.
A guardrail ran along the two-lane highway, separating it from a steep bank sloping sharply down to the Orenda River. Better lighting for this strip of road known as Falls Way had been a main topic of the seemingly endless city council meeting Marissa had covered for the Aurora Falls Gazette two nights ago. One man in his eighties had declared in a strong voice that more lights would be too expensive and they would create a teenage hangout where teenagers did what teenagers did. When a sneering young man around thirty asked him what teenagers did, the elderly man replied snappily, "It's a shame a fella your age needs to ask," bringing on loud laughter from the crowd.
On the opposing side, a woman who looked like a rainbow in a fuchshia and turquoise suit, her dyed red hair upswept, declared she wouldn't have had her second wreck on Falls Way last summer if the city provided adequate lighting in that area. Someone else suggested she might have been able to keep better control of her car if she'd called a taxi instead of driving home after a long evening spent in the Lonesome Me Tavern, a remark she had ignored with dignity so rigid Marissa had thought the woman's neck might break.
Finally, the wife of the town's sheriff, Jean Farrell, with her dowdy clothes, humble manner, and meek voice, sent the meeting into near pandemonium by politely stating that not only did Falls Way definitely need improved lighting, but also the first order of business must be to replace the old, weak guardrail between the highway and the Orenda River. She acknowledged the project's cost would eliminate the money the city had set aside to build a new baseball diamond in the park. However, if the city didn't begin work on the lights and the guardrail soon, Jean said pleasantly but firmly, she would take the matter to the governor, who everyone knew was not only her friend but also her cousin.
Almost laughing aloud at the memory of what the elderly man later called "one firecracker of a meeting," Marissa met another car going in the opposite direction and absently noted it was the first vehicle she'd seen in a couple of minutes. The car following her had turned left, and without the shine of its headlights in her rear window she realized exactly how dark this stretch of road was at night.
The snow fell harder. The car chilled quickly. She'd forgotten her gloves and her fingers stiffened. On such a bad night, fewer people were traveling on Falls Way than usual and the highway rapidly grew slicker. Marissa was an exceptionally good driver, with quick reflexes and twenty-fifteen vision, but driving in this weather was nerve-wracking and Marissa decided that as soon as she reached the party she'd promptly ask for a drink. A double. She'd accept anything alcoholic and stimulating except fattening eggnog. Evelyn Addison would probably be annoyed that the party wasn't Marissa's immediate concern, but Marissa didn't care. Evelyn wouldn't have been driving in the slippery snow.
Or rather, ice. Both the defroster and the wipers were on high. Marissa leaned forward, squinting through her wind-shield. She'd turned her headlights on low beam, knowing high-beam light would refract off the snow and ice and create a blinding glare, but her range of vision was still alarmingly small.
Marissa glanced at the speedometer. Forty. She certainly wasn't driving too fast. She usually traveled Falls Way at sixty. Still, she slowed her speed another five miles per hour. Thank goodness the Addison house was less than two miles away, she thought, beginning to feel less certain of her ability to handle bad road conditions. Maybe Catherine had been right to expect—
Suddenly, only about fifteen feet ahead of Marissa, her headlights caught a blur of movement near the guardrail. A deer? she wondered. Then, to her shock, the form began to climb over the guardrail, although climb didn't seem to be the right word. As Marissa watched through her continually slush-splattered windshield, the figure looked as if it was slithering over the ice-covered rail, moving with smooth, sinuous, frighteningly unnatural ease. Once clear of the guardrail, the figure stood up tall in a long, dark coat, seemed to glide into Marissa's lane, and stopped directly in front of her.
Marissa gasped and pushed on her horn at the same moment. The figure didn't move. In the gleam of Marissa's headlights, she could see a pallid human-shaped face surrounded by a hood. In spite of the weather, she saw enormous black-rimmed eye sockets and, inside of them, the gleam of dark, almost inhuman eyes staring steadily at her. Her own hands trembled, but the figure never flinched as once again Marissa hit the horn, long and hard.
Marissa fought the urge to slam on the brakes, knowing doing so would throw her into a spin. Instead, she steered to the left, intending to go around the person who was obviously drunk or crazy. On her cell phone she would report the incident as soon as she'd eased back into her own lane—
Except a semitruck bore down on her in the left lane. The truck driver's horn blared. The truck was so close Marissa could see the driver's horrified expression. Now she had no time for deft maneuvers on ice. Immediately Marissa hit her brakes, simultaneously jerking the steering wheel to the right.
In a moment, she realized she'd dodged both the truck and the pedestrian, but her car was spinning out of control on the ice. Back in the correct lane, she fought the wheel, but the car had a life of its own, slewing rapidly to the right.
A thousand thoughts seemed to scramble through part of Marissa's brain while at the same time another part maintained an odd tranquility. The tranquility shattered when her Mustang smashed into the guardrail. Sparks of metal grating against metal flashed in the darkness before she heard the groan-snap of the old, weakened guardrail bending and splitting. Marissa finally screamed when the guardrail gave way and her car plunged down the steep, rough bank toward the Orenda River.
Excerpted from Nowhere To Hide by Carlene Thompson. Copyright © 2010 by Carlene Thompson. Published in November 2010 by St. Martin's Paperbacks. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.