The Obsession Page 112

He’d walked up the steps with lilacs in a blue pitcher, set them down unceremoniously. Stolen flowers in an old pitcher, carried in big, callused hands.

And she’d fallen in love.

It couldn’t be that fast. It couldn’t be that simple. It couldn’t be.

But it was. She didn’t have to have felt it all before to know what tripped and stumbled inside her.

She breathed in, breathed out, took a good glug of wine.

What happened next?

Nothing had to happen next, she assured herself. Everything just continued, it just kept going until . . . something. But right now, nothing happened.

She had pork chops to stuff.

She heard him laughing, talking to the dog out on the deck. She saw the lilacs—so lush, so sweet. And had to press the heel of her hand to her heart, order it to behave.

But she pulled out her phone, angled herself, and took several shots of the flowers.

By the time she began making the stuffing, she heard Mason’s voice and, glancing up, saw him step onto the deck from the stairs.

Xander moved into the opening. “We’ll get the table. The chairs are clean, but they’re still ugly.”

“Their charm is simply yet to be released.”

“Whatever. I’m going to want that food once we get the table up. It smells good.”

“Food’s an hour off.”

“That’ll do.”

While she finished the stuffing, they hauled up the farmhouse table. Mason stepped in.

“Are those . . . stuffed pork chops!”

“I know how to soften you up.”

He kissed her cheeks. “Thanks. Why did you buy such crappy chairs?”

“They won’t be crappy when they’re fixed.”

“If you say so. I like the table. Is that barn wood?”

“It is.”

“Built to last.”

She finished stuffing the chops, slid them into the oven, and stepped out on the deck. “Oh, look how the cleaner brings out the grain. It just needed some tending.”

“It’s got some dings and scratches,” Xander told her.

“It’s called character. And Jenny said she could fix anything that needed fixing. I don’t want to spoil anything, Mason, but I thought if we could talk about what you did, found out, think since meeting with Chief Winston, we wouldn’t have it hanging over us at dinner.”

He gave her a long look, then nodded. “I can’t tell you much you don’t already know. All indications are Donna Lanier was abducted from the parking lot shortly before midnight on Friday. Her car was locked, hasn’t been moved since she parked it when she came on shift at four. Three other employees worked until closing. One, Maxie Upton, came out the back of the building alone a few minutes before Donna, Gina Barrows, and Brennan Forrester. Routinely Maxie parks in that same section of the lot, as most employees do, but her car was in the shop. Yours,” he said to Xander.

“Yeah, she drove in on a flat just after I closed, and had four tires as bald as my uncle Jim. I wasn’t going to let her drive around on them, made her a deal. I’d work the price of the tires down, take her to work—and she’d call her father to pick her up. She was going to walk, and after what happened to Marla, I wasn’t having her walking home or to a friend’s alone at midnight.”

“She’s lucky you provide such personal customer service.”

“I’ve known her since she was . . .” Xander straightened from his slouch against the rail. “Are you saying he was looking to take her? Was waiting for Maxie to walk to her car?”

“It’s possible. I lean toward probable. She’s younger, blonde, more like the first victim physically than Donna. I talked to her when Chief Winston did a follow-up. Her father wasn’t waiting when she came out, and she was alone out there for about twenty seconds—and now says she got nervous, thought about going back in. She thought it was because you’d spooked her about not walking, not being alone. Then her father came, and she didn’t think any more about it.”

“You said Donna came out with Gina and Brennan.”

“Just after Maxie’s father picked her up. And they walked off together—they’re in a relationship—leaving Donna locking up.”

“He took Donna because she was there?” Naomi asked.

“There’s a reason we don’t consider a serial until there are three like crimes.”


“But I believe the same person took Donna. I believe he’s an opportunist—he saw an opportunity with Marla Roth, took it. He saw one with Donna, took it. At the same time he was in that lot or close by, he was most certainly lying in wait, which tells me he’d observed the routine of that restaurant, and I believe he’d probably selected his target. Circumstances caused him to miss that opportunity. He took the next.”

“Christ.” Xander turned away, stared hard out over the water.

“There’s a young woman, and her parents, who are never going to forget a set of bald tires or the man who demanded a promise. Chief Winston has already looked into like crimes, but I’m going to look again, narrowing the parameters, and adding in missings. He has deputies, and rangers, checking rental houses and cabins within a twenty-five-mile radius.”

“Because he needs a place,” Naomi stated.

Like a cellar, an old root cellar deep in the woods.

“Yeah. I’m not discounting a local, but I respect Winston’s firm opinion that this is an outsider—and the low crime rate helps support it. Still, he’ll take a harder look at individuals in the area.”

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