December in the Northwoods of Minnesota meant opening the windows wasn’t an option.
But she was definitely not going to be able to sleep here as she had planned. She might have to go get a room at The Landing a couple of nights. She was pretty sure Lily had a room available this time of year.
When was the last time anyone had been up to the cabin? Not this past summer for sure. Her brothers lived out of state, and her dad wouldn’t have even been able to make it up the front steps to the door before his knee replacement last month. So at least a year.
She pulled her sweater up over her nose and said a little prayer that she wouldn’t find whatever had died in here.
No, better to find it and get rid of it, rather than it be stuck in a wall somewhere.
She entered the living room with its secondhand plaid furniture in front of the outdated flatscreen television sitting on a cedar chest where they stored blankets. The wall-to-wall carpet the salesman had assured her mother was durable looked sadly out of style. Bailey turned toward the sliding door that led to the deck. Her favorite thing about summers here was reading on the deck at all hours. Her love for books had driven her to become a professor of children’s literature in St. Paul.
She checked behind the drapes before she pulled the cord— the last thing she wanted was a spider bite—and when she pulled the drapes open, yep, there was a pile of fur right against the window. Gray, maybe a baby raccoon or a squirrel. She didn’t look too closely, but reached around and opened the door before she headed to the kitchen for a broom. Gagging, she pushed the carcass over the threshold—with some effort—and toward the edge of the deck and over the side.
She took a moment to gather herself before she took a deep breath of cold fresh air and looked out through the bare trees to the icy lake beyond.
She hadn’t been up here in the winter in years, had forgotten the stark beauty of the place, even with the leaves blanketing everything, where snow should be doing that job this time of year. None of the state had gotten much snow yet this year, and the drive up had been kind of sad and gray.
Walking into the neglected cabin had not dispelled the sad grayness that was settling over her.
But the breeze made standing outside unbearable so she turned back inside, which was only marginally warmer. At least removing the source of the smell had been accomplished, and she left the door open a little longer to see if that helped dissipate the odor. She walked back into the kitchen and again took a deep fortifying breath before opening the refrigerator. It didn’t smell great, but at least it was working, and a good scrub should take care of the lingering odor. She braced herself before opening each cabinet, but apparently the exterminators had held up their end of the contract, because nothing scuttled in the empty spaces.
She would have thought her mother would at least have left a few canned goods behind, but no, Bailey was going to have to go into town, go by the grocery store, maybe pick up a hot meal from Quinn’s.
Eat it there, because eating anything here was not going to be appetizing.
At least the kitchen was minimally disgusting.
Then she headed upstairs. Her parents’ bedroom was in the front, with the view of the lake out of the wide triangular windows, and hers and her brothers’ were in the back, toward the woods. Once, the area had been a big bunk room, designed with the idea that the extended family could come stay and have space, but that rarely happened. Her parents erected a wall in the space after Bailey had come sobbing into their room one night too many after her brothers had told her scary stories. So now the space contained one regular sized room, and one tiny room.
She opened the door to check each, and none had any bedding.
Of course. She’d forgotten that her mother took all the bedding home at the end of each season to launder it. Why hadn’t she thought of that, before she’d driven all the way up here? Amazon had to deliver here, too, didn’t they? She wondered if she’d even have internet service. She needed to ask her mom if they’d had service in the cabin. The fact that she didn’t know bothered her. She had been invited up here every summer since she got married, but David had never wanted to come. They’d both worked summer school for extra money that they never spent because he never wanted to do anything. So she had closed in on herself more and more until...she didn’t know who she was anymore.
She was going to have to figure it out, now that David was out of the picture. She closed the doors to the bedrooms again, and headed down the stairs to close the sliding door. She was going to have to see what could be done about the dead animal smell before she turned on the heat and stunk up the whole place. She wondered who she could ask.
Just as she turned away from closing the drapes, the front door swung open, and a man strode through, gun drawn.
She jerked her hands up reflexively as he shouted, “Sheriff’s department, freeze!”
Zach Zephardt stared down at the woman in the puffy coat and messy hair as she gaped with wide eyes, her hands up before he’d even finished the command.
To be fair, this was his first B&E call, so he hadn’t really noticed she was complying before he barked at her.
He holstered his weapon, then held out his hands to the woman, palm out.
The light in the cabin was bad, and damn, the cabin was cold, and smelled like something had died. Was she squatting? He hadn’t seen a car in the driveway. How had she gotten all the way out here? Not many people used this road this time of year— most of the cabins in the area were summer places.
“I got a call,” he said. “A prowler in this cabin.”
“I can’t be a prowler in my own family’s cabin,” she snapped, and stepped forward.
He squinted and...no. It couldn’t be. “Bailey?” Bailey had been a summer girl, had spent every summer with her family here in Bluestone. He’d watched her grow from a chubby self-conscious girl who spent most of the summer reading on the deck to a lighthearted teen who’d made the place her own, and had drawn everyone to her, even himself, though she was about five years older than him.
But that young bright girl was nowhere in sight now. The woman before him was hunched inside her coat, and, okay, he’d drawn a gun on her so maybe that was part of it, but she just seemed to be a shadow of the girl he’d known.
She stepped forward, her expression tired, sad, and he instinctively moved forward, hand out in apology. “I didn’t know you’d come back. Sorry. Mrs. Filbert reported a prowler and I had to come check it out.”
He didn’t see any recognition on her part, though. He scrubbed a hand over his chin. He didn’t think he had changed that much. Maybe she hadn’t expected him to stay in town. Maybe she hadn’t thought he would become a cop.
“It’s me, Zach. I was Brian’s friend, remember?”
She stepped back again just as fast, drawing in a sharp breath that must have been a mistake in this stinky house, because she started coughing, pressing a hand to her chest and bending over.
He caught her arm and guided her toward the door and fresh air. “Let’s get out of here for now. You don’t have any power, and it’s going to be dark soon.”
“I forgot how early it gets dark up here,” she said, letting him lead her, then pulling her arm free when they reached the porch. “I thought my parents left the power on.”
That would make sense because they wouldn’t want the place to freeze up in the winter, but when he flicked the light switch by the door, nothing happened, so...
“We can get Chase Granzer out here tomorrow and give it a look. You weren’t planning to stay here, were you?” He spotted a suitcase just inside the door.
“I had been, before I saw what bad shape it was in. I’m going to try to get a place at The Landing, I guess. I saw it was still open.”
He drew in a breath through his teeth, then reached back in to grab her suitcase and roll it out. “That might be difficult. They’re doing the fish house parade this weekend, and she might be pretty well booked.”
Bailey looked up at him, brows drawn together. “I thought that was always Thanksgiving week.”
“Yeah, usually, but the lake didn’t freeze over until after that, and the fishermen couldn’t get their houses out on the lake, so we postponed it.”
He shrugged. “We had temperatures in the nineties until October.”
Now that they were out of the shadows, he got a good look at her and yeah, he wouldn’t have recognized her if he’d passed her in town. She was pale and solemn, her auburn hair piled haphaz‐ ardly on top of her head, but her attitude more than anything made him certain he wouldn’t have known her. She was— hunched in on herself. Okay, yes, when she’d been in middle school, she’d been like that, but she’d blossomed in high school. He saw nothing of the girl she’d been in the woman before him.
“Let’s see about getting you a place to stay,” he said.
She looked from him to his patrol car, parked in the driveway. “Don’t you need to get back to work?”
He motioned to the radio on his hip. “They’ll let me know if they need me.” They usually didn’t. “You want to follow me into town? Where’s your car?”
She gave him a look he couldn’t read. “In the garage. And it’s been a while but I know the way.”
He nodded, and headed down he steps ahead of her.
She hadn’t given any indication she remembered him, at all. He wondered if she did, and what had made her change so much.
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