“I don’t know where Mommy is!”
That makes two of us, buddy.
Charity’s hands tightened on the steering wheel as she drove her six-year-old nephew through Silver Forest pass. The snowstorm was getting heavier through the mountains. The tires slipped the farther they traveled from Corwell, Colorado. Her windshield showed only a blinding torrent of milky white, so that she couldn’t tell exactly where the road was.
Miriam! Miriam, where are you?
She was going to find out where her twin sister had gone if it killed her. It just might, but they had a connection that very few could break, and even from the beginning of all this, Charity had sensed something was terribly wrong.
Milo couldn’t stop talking about how he hadn’t seen his momma for days, though he stayed strangely quiet about his daddy when Charity had pressed him.
Her skin still crawled after what had happened—it was why she’d snapped and left everything behind—her purse, her phone, her luggage, her freaking mind! She’d taken off with Milo before she could even think about the kind of trouble she’d be in.
Charity had an address to go by. That was it. Forget asking for directions. She’d get taken into custody the second she stepped out of her car. It was her word against Hal’s, and who would believe her over the Judge of Corwell?
She’d only briefly glanced down at the GPS in her sister’s car, long enough to know that the place she was looking for was in the most secluded spot out of town that it could possibly be, and that this cute little blue BMW sports car would barely make it out there with these sleek tires.
She hadn’t been wrong. Charity felt like she was playing Road Racer with her older brother like they used to do in their cramped apartment back in the day. She had about the same control on that old-school video game as she had over these roads. The storm was working for and against her—she’d vanished from Corwell PD’s radar like a phantom under this blizzard, but yeah… she was officially lost.
It didn’t matter. Nothing was going to stop her from getting justice now.
Charity had been so fooled by her sister’s husband. How long had Miriam been fooled? The way these things went, Miriam had probably known how abusive Hal was before they even said, “I do,” and she’d walked right into it because… well, Miriam was used to being treated like garbage.
Her heart broke for her sister. How could this happen to her again? Charity had thought they’d broken the cycle of abuse. Hadn’t their mom worked double shifts and an extra job to make a new life for them all? Charity had gone into social work because of that abuse, but Miriam had found someone to replace their daddy, hadn’t she?
Hal Evans seemed so mild mannered, charming—a people-pleaser, considering the way her brother-in-law always worked overtime to make Charity feel comfortable whenever she visited for the holidays; he’d shared the responsibility of making dinners with her sister and reading stories to her nephew, in accents and cartoon voices even!
No one cared that Hal was older than Miriam by fifteen years. The age difference had no claim on his chiseled good looks, vast fortune, and friendly charm. This was his second marriage, and Hal had supposedly owned up to the mistakes that ended the first one. Charity’s sister had told everyone in their family—their older brother, their momma—that Hal was a better man for his challenges in his past. After all the years they’d been married, couldn’t everyone see that he was one of the best men out there? The guy was a judge for goodness’ sake!
And yet, Hal’s steel gray eyes had hardly blinked as he’d watched Charity from the doorway of his mansion when she’d grilled him on what he’d done to her sister:
“Tell me where Miriam is!” Charity’s fingers clenched as she faced him down. Charity should’ve called the police before this, but she wasn’t sure what to believe after she saw her sister’s texts. Her shoulders trembled. Milo’s usual happy voice of greeting wasn’t echoing from the foyer.
Hal’s foot blocked the door to stop her from entering the spacious building that her sister had managed to make into a home. She’d never noticed how tall her brother-in-law was, or how menacing.
Her chin lifted as she faced the man who was supposed to protect the ones she loved most. “What have you done to my sister?”
Apparently, he feared she’d been too loud for the neighbors because he’d dragged her away from her luggage on the porch into his pristine living room.
“What are you doing?” Charity cried out in surprise. He’d resorted so quickly to getting physical, and still she adapted as easily as she’d done as a child. She took advantage of the opening to search for her sister and Milo. Lavish surroundings of crystal chandeliers and paintings worth more than her own apartment met her uneasy eyes. Her sister lived in a mausoleum. The fact never bothered Charity until she tried to find where her sister was buried in it. There was no sign of Milo, either.
Charity’s heart pounded as she raced dangerously through the storm. The windshield wipers whipped from side to side. It hadn’t taken long for the years of deceit to crumble before her very eyes as Hal showed her just how far he was from the caring professional he’d showed the world. He was a star in the criminal justice system, a promising young lawyer who’d shot straight to the top. She’d always admired that he took down criminals, and now she began to wonder what strings he’d pulled to get there.
He’d laughed—laughed—when she told him that she was worried for Miriam—as if some redneck trash like her wasn’t capable of feeling affection for a sister as someone from his privileged background. He’d actually accused her of trying to blackmail him.
“What do you want? Huh? Money?” he spat at her. “You want a piece of what is mine?”
What was he talking about? “Miriam. I want Miriam,” she said. “She told me…” Charity didn’t want to give away that her sister had warned her that her nephew was in danger. “Just let me see Milo, Hal.”
Those watchful eyes sharpened on her. And when he refused to let her see her nephew, he’d wrenched her back from the door with him so that she was trapped in that house of horrors.
What had her sister gone through sharing a life with him?
What did he do to you, Miriam?
For the hundredth time that trip, Charity sent up a prayer to help her family get through this in one piece. God, Milo doesn’t deserve this. He’s a good kid! Their mother was a prayerful woman and she taught her kids exactly how to get through the tough times, but Charity’s faith was beginning to slip after everything she’d seen, even though she desperately held to what lifelines she could. Help us find his mommy, God! We need her.
The windshield wipers kept getting stuck against the snow. Little good they did against this dangerous storm anyway. The headlights barely lit the ribbon of ice that the pass had become. Help me not to crash this car and kill us both! Don’t let Hal catch up to us. We need help… really, really soon!
She was supposed to be celebrating Christmas in the Caribbean with her best friend, Lucy, buying trinkets that would make Milo shout out for joy when they caught up at New Years.
… except her twin sister sent her a text so chilling that Charity had changed her ticket at the last second. “Char, get over here now! Milo needs you! You’re the only one I can trust. Take him away from here. I know what Hal is doing, and he knows that I know! It’s dangerous. I can’t explain right now, but talk to Andrew—he knows where I went, and please, don’t write me back at this number. Be careful.”
Charity promised her friend, Lucy, that she’d catch up to her soon. That wasn’t going to happen, was it? She’d left her cellphone behind. Mom and BJ thought she was on her happy little vacation, and by the time her family figured out that she wasn’t where she was supposed to be, it would absolutely be too late.
Charity had faced Hal in the living room, crossing her arms against the terror pulsating through her. “You think my brother doesn’t know I’m here?”
“Nice try. He’d never let you come. BJ’s more protective than that pathetic mongrel he drives around in that dirty pickup of his. Why do you think Miriam and I are too busy to take his calls?”
Her throat felt dry. That overprotectiveness was exactly why Charity hadn’t told BJ. She’d wanted to see if this was serious before she brought in the big guns. “You can’t…”
Hal cut her off with a dry bark of laughter. “Miriam doesn’t get to see her boy… not unless she comes back to me and we talk this over. Simple as that.”
Relief and horror washed over her—relief because Miriam was alive and far from Hal’s grasp, horror because Charity had somehow put her sister in more danger because she’d been stupid enough to barge into her home without a plan. Still, why the mysterious texts? Why not call Charity directly? Answer her calls? But then she’d spied Miriam’s phone on the coffee table. Had he been monitoring her phone? Sending messages as her?
Why would he do that?
What was real? What was fake?
Charity pretended like every accusation Hal leveled at her was true. “I’ll tell her,” she said, as if she were actually in cahoots with her sister. “When I see her, I’ll tell her your conditions.”
Hal’s gaze narrowed on her. She supposed that his eyes were once beautiful, when they belonged to a soul not as dark and twisted as his. If he saw any weakness in her, he’d take advantage of it. Her body wouldn’t stop shaking. She couldn’t hide it.
His lip curled. “You’re not going anywhere. Sending you was a dumb move. You’re staying with me until my wife comes back for you.”
Charity scoffed through the sound of her racing heart. “You can’t do that. I’m leaving.”
“Yeah? You think you can waltz in and out of my home, like my relationship with my wife has anything to do with you?” His fingers dug into her skin. “How about I make it your business? You want that? I know you’ve always had a thing for me, always teasing me with your eyes.”
She gaped at him. He was mocking her now! Flirting was more of her sister’s thing. She didn’t have Miriam’s looks. They weren’t identical twins. They looked similar enough for people to mistake them for each other sometimes, but that was only when they were younger. Charity had always opted for the more natural, “Mousy” look as her sister called it, letting her hair stay dark. Miriam had gone all out as a blonde bombshell and used those looks to steal away the men’s hearts while they were in college.
More power to her.
Charity enjoyed the quiet life… at least that was what she told herself whenever she was lonely. Despite all that, she’d never betray her sister or her family by “making eyes” at anyone they loved!
“Don’t be stupid,” she told Hal. “I never thought of you as anything more than a brother!”
“Really?” he asked. “That’s a shame. I always had a thing for you.”
His reckless baiting had rocked her to the core. Charity recognized the desperate, wrathful look of a man who was trying to get revenge on the woman who’d finally escaped him.
Charity couldn’t prove how she knew, but now Hal was a danger to his own son!
Her suspicions would never fly in court. She’d fought the system long enough to know how much evidence she needed to relocate a child from their birth parents. Everything she was doing was against the law. And yet, she’d risk losing everything to rescue Milo.
Unbelievably, Hal had actually bought Charity’s nodded assurances that she was there on her sister’s behalf to blackmail him, even though she was a terrible liar. Miriam always claimed her twin’s fluttering lashes gave her away, but Hal was so sure that Charity was that kind of lowlife, he’d left her all alone to get drinks to seal their talks with a smug smile on his face. His arrogance was unbelievable.
“Milo?” Charity whispered hoarsely. Her fervent calls were met with no answer. She tried to catch her breath, her mind going a million directions. She couldn’t stay here. Hal would come back. Milo was better off if she found help. Charity hurried to the front door and tugged at the handle.
It was locked! From the inside? How? Running her fingers down the frame, she found the metal attachment. A blue glow emanated from it, but no bolt or spring. Was it fingerprint activated? Charity couldn’t figure it out. She was trapped.
Oh Miriam… did you really live like this and say nothing?
Charity’s eyes locked on the keys resting on the side table under a decorative sign that said “Family.”
Those were Miriam’s keys to her BMW Roadster. She’d left them behind. The mystery to her sister’s disappearance was only getting more convoluted. Charity stuffed the keys into her jeans pocket. That would be one way to get out of here! She scraped out her phone to dial 911. A brisk-sounding female answered the call.
“Help me!” Charity whispered into the receiver. “I need you to come to-to…” She didn’t know the exact address. The pressure was too much to conjure up the one she gave the Lyft driver. “I’m on Ferguson Way.” She remembered that at least. “Trace my phone for the street number. I’m at Judge Hal’s place.”
“Judge Hal?” This was a small town and Hal was in the criminal justice industry. Of course, this woman would know him. “Is he all right, hon?”
No! “He’s not the one hurt. Miriam is! I mean, I don’t know where she is—she’s my sister, and…”
“His wife? Where is he?”
“Here. He’s here. I’m really worried about Miriam. I don’t know what he did to her!”
“We’ve got a patrol car in the area.”
“Thank you. Come quick,” she tried to keep her voice down through her panic. “Hal is acting, um… suspicious…I don’t trust him at all, and I got this text from my sister out of nowhere…”
“What are you doing?” Hal hissed. He knocked her phone against the carpet.
Charity took a deep breath to scream. He clamped a hand over her mouth so fast that she choked while he grappled with the phone at their feet. He threw it against his ear all while she tried to escape him. “Thanks, Susan, for your help,” he told the lady on the line. His calm voice didn’t give away that he was holding down a struggling woman. “Yes, this is Hal. We’ll call if Miriam doesn’t show up.” He gritted his teeth. “Yes, yes, I understand my sister-in-law’s concern, but I’ve got it taken care of.”
He hung up the phone, one-handed, and tossed it across the room. He glared at Charity, his breathing ragged. His fingers pressed against her mouth, but the rage radiating from him stole her voice from her anyway. “If you think that little stunt will make me play nice, you can forget it,” he said.
The cruel truth had sunk into her bones in an instant. She should’ve called her brother instead of coming herself. Hal had her running like a dog.
Now she was on the road in the middle of a blizzard with no phone. Hal had left her with no choice but to find Andrew. Her brother-in-law’s son from his first marriage lived nearby. He was just out of college. He’d had a promising career once, but Charity had a feeling that Hal had ruined that too. She didn’t know for sure. She only felt it. Just like everything lately. Why else was Andrew out here in the middle of the mountains living as some kind of nature survivalist? When these passes closed off in the winter, he’d be out here with no human contact for months.
That wasn’t normal for a twenty-three-year-old.
The GPS had told her that the turnoff to Andrew’s place was close, but that was half an hour ago. The worthless piece of machinery kept changing its mind each time she lost satellite connection. The clouds were too thick. The reception wasn’t coming through. Still, the GPS acted as if they were close.
Charity wanted to throttle the machine each time it redirected her. If she could remove her hands from the steering wheel, she would. Andrew’s address had been the last one Miriam had typed into her car’s GPS. The second Charity scrambled into the compact BMW and saw where her sister had been, she knew the guy would have the answers she was looking for.
Miriam had talked about her visits to Andrew last year. She’d been trying to connect to Hal’s past life and heal the rifts in his family. Such a thought seemed almost ridiculous now. Hal’s family from his first marriage would be better off if they stayed far away from him.
Either way, Miriam had talked about how Andrew lived in a small cabin on a road just off the pass in the middle of nowhere.
But what road? What pass even? Everything was lost in this punishing storm.
The arrow on the GPS told her that they were at the turnoff. Charity couldn’t see a thing. She slowed, staring at the trees swaying on either side of her. The mountains were only shadows in the distance. Nothing looked familiar. What was she supposed to do?
She moved the car at a snail’s pace. Anything slower and she’d lose her momentum and get stuck in the snow; anything faster and she’d slide off the road.
“Are we at Andrew’s yet?” Milo asked from his booster in the back seat. “We’re going to play with dice!” Her nephew held up the toys that he’d been playing with before she’d snatched him from his home, like it was equally important to everything happening to them.
The kid had no idea they were in a battle between good and evil here.
At least Charity’s acting skills had improved. Good thing, or else they wouldn’t have gotten so far.
Hal had shoved her into the room at the end of the hall.
“Mommy?” Milo shouted out happily.
Hal had brought Charity to her nephew’s room!
She twisted in Hal’s grasp, seeing that Milo was safe. He played with construction paper that he’d cut into triangles, and he was trying to glue dice onto it.
“Char!” Using his mommy’s nickname for her, Milo ran to give her a hug. His arms went around her waist, even as Hal’s fingers slid from her face. She swallowed, staring down at Milo. All the abuse she’d suffered as a child washed over her, no matter how much she’d tried to smother the flood of her memories. Strangely, she felt like the kid she once was, so powerless… but she wasn’t. She refused to be that again. One thing she was certain of—and that knowledge didn’t spring from her master’s degree—abusers liked to feel in control.
Her chin snapped up to face Hal again. “You’re right. You’re right.” She forced the hysteria from her voice. “Let’s play nice.” She gulped, trying to appeal to his vanity next. “We’ve always been friends.”
“Yes, we have.” He smoothed Charity’s hair behind her ear like he had every right.
The darkness pulsating from him made her feel nauseated; the same feeling she got when she was huddled in the bed with Miriam years ago when they covered their ears from their parents’ shouts; Hal’s shark-like focus on her triggered the same alarm bells when going on house visits when she’d sensed inexplicably that something was wrong with the kids she was sent to check on.
Something was very wrong here.
“You’re in my playground now,” he said. “These are my friends, my town. Let’s make one thing clear. No one will believe you over me. Miriam should’ve warned you.”
Typical abusive hack!
The doorbell rang. The police were here! Charity didn’t buy into Hal’s warnings that the law in Corwell was under his thumb. She wasn’t an idiot! They’d have to listen to her, no matter what threats Hal tried to scare her with. She’d scream to alert them that she was hiding here. Hal had to know that he hadn’t intimidated her. She wasn’t a child or broken under his abuse. Would he try to silence her?
The ringing of the doorbell turned into a steady knocking. His eyes narrowed on her. “One peep out of you and you’ll regret it.” His cruel smile shook her to the core—he promised violence with a look. “I’ll tell them that you threatened me, that you’re trying to take my son from me after you did something to my wife… you’re trying to steal your own sister’s life because you’re obsessed with taking her place. You have to have me or die!”
What? He’d ripped off the plot from Single White Female. Ridiculous!
“You threatened my family, and they’ll put you in a holding cell for me,” he said, “even if they don’t believe a word I say… because yes, Charity, they fear me, like you will.”
Clenching her teeth, Charity studied the trees blanketing the side of the road for any sign of a pathway that would get her to Andrew’s. She’d never let Hal win! Years of facing down bullies was a habit that made up who she was. She’d do it over and over again, even if she came away with scrapes and bruises—because she owed it to that scared little kid she used to be.
She owed it to Miriam. She owed it to Milo.
Charity startled with relief when she saw the hidden pathway through the break of trees to the side of them. All that staring into the nothingness of the white powdered forest had paid off.
Oh thank you, God! Thank you!
She’d almost missed the opening. New worries swept her away in its current as she saw the path was lost under the shelter of trees. What if this road was the wrong one? Her GPS had been glitchy for miles. This way could lead to anything, anyone!
If she went down that hill, there was no going back up the snow in this sports car. The slope would take her careening down to the bottom. Her brakes would be useless against this ice. And after she reached that road under the trees below, she had no idea what awaited her next.
Worse, this pass was going to be closed off soon. She and Milo would be snowed in with whatever fate they’d found down there.
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