If you haven’t read the Prologue you can catch up on that first.
Eighteen years later
Gemma pulled down the driveway and parked in front of the small log cabin. She hadn’t been here in years and was looking forward to this.
Looking forward to starting her life over.
To moving on from her last job.
From her family and the friends she thought she had but realized she never did.
To begin fresh.
She got out of her car and started to walk toward the front door of her Aunt Julie’s second home in Lake Placid.
Aunt Julie never married, but then again, she traveled all the time and never sat still. Her job as a pharmaceutical rep had her changing territories and companies all the time. Moving up and moving on to better things.
Once, Gemma had asked her aunt if she was gay and her aunt had almost laughed her out of the room. Then she’d said, “Just because a woman is single doesn’t mean she’s gay. And if I were gay, I’d be proud of it and flaunt my lover in front of your stuck-up mother and my tight-assed brother. But in this case, I just put my career first.” Then her aunt had smiled and said, “But don’t think I lack for companionship. I just keep my affairs discreet. There’s no use getting any more judgment from our family.”
She’d cracked a grin when her aunt said that five years ago. If anyone was used to being judged, it was her Aunt Julie. Maybe that was why her aunt took Gemma under her wing so much growing up. She must have known exactly what Gemma was going through.
And if there was one person who understood Gemma’s need for a change in her life, it was her aunt. Which was why her aunt put a good word in for her when Gemma said she wanted to move away from her hometown of Colonie, just outside of Albany in Upstate New York.
Her aunt had contacts and reached out to the school district here when Gemma saw there was an opening for a middle school English teacher. Gemma interviewed and got the job and here she was, the first week of July ready to start her new life.
Her aunt told her there was no reason to look for a place yet, to stay at her cabin that was hardly ever used. Gemma took the offer gladly. She had enough to do moving and getting used to the area before committing to an apartment right now.
She pulled out the key her aunt had mailed her and opened the front door, then switched on a light. As a kid, she’d loved coming here in the summer and spending a week with her aunt. Amelia and Andy never got to spend a week with their aunt, and Gemma loved it even more for that reason.
As soon as the light came on, Gemma knew something was off. Instead of everything being nice and neat and orderly like her aunt kept things, it looked like someone had been staying in the place.
There was a blanket on the couch all crumpled up and some newspapers on the coffee table.
“Hello,” she called out. Should she leave right now? She wasn’t sure what to do. “Is anyone here?”
There was no answer, so she took a chance and walked into the kitchen. When she saw wrappers in the garbage along with some paper plates and napkins she knew she wasn’t imagining things.
She pulled her phone out and called her aunt right away. Thankfully she answered on the first ring. “Hi, Gemma. Did you get to the cabin already?”
“I’m here, Aunt Julie. You said you were going to have someone have it all set up, right?”
“Yes. Is it all dusty and musty smelling? They were supposed to be there last week to clean it up for you.”
That’s what she was afraid of. “It looks like someone has been here. Not cleaning either.”
“What do you mean?” her aunt asked.
“A blanket was left on the couch along with some newspapers and there is trash in the garbage. Like someone was staying here and ate and left it.”
“What are you doing in the cabin then?” her aunt shrieked. “Get out and call the police.”
“There’s no one here,” Gemma said. “And the food smells rank so I’m thinking no one has been here in a few days.”
“It doesn’t matter. Go back in your car and lock the doors and call the police. Let me know right away what is going on. I’m so sorry, Gemma. It’s the last thing you needed to deal with moving there. Here you are making all these great changes in your life and don’t need to be concerned about a safe place to stay.”
She hadn’t been thinking of that. Great. “You aren’t helping matters any, Aunt Julie. I’m in my car now. I’ll call nine-one-one and let you know what I find out. Don’t worry. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
At least she hoped so. It’s not like the place was trashed or anything looked to be missing. Then again she hadn’t really looked, as she got out of there as fast as she could when her aunt yelled at her.
Blake Wilson pulled up behind the State Trooper vehicle in front of the small log cabin. The place was set back from the road a bit, but not completely remote. There were other houses on the street, but it was not unheard of for a hiker to stumble across a place that looked empty and camp for a night or two.
It’s the only reason he was called to investigate. It seemed to be happening a lot lately. No damage was ever done, but it looked as if someone stayed a night or two for free.
“What do we have here?” he asked Matt, one of the young troopers.
“Not much. Looks like someone got into the place a few nights ago. I talked to Gemma and she said she didn’t walk through the whole place. From the smell of the food I’d say they are long gone. Probably stayed a night or so, same as before.”
“Gemma?” he asked.
Matt pointed to the woman leaning against her car looking at her phone.
What a sight she was. Probably five foot five and nice and curvy. Not some toothpick woman, but someone toned in all the right places. Someone who obviously took very good care of herself in the process.
Long brown hair with hints of red in it as the sun was beating down on her. It was pushing eighty-five at the moment and she didn’t look to even be sweating. Calm women happened to be his thing.
He walked over to the lovely lady. “I’m Investigator Wilson. Is this your property?”
She looked up fast, her green eyes bright and clear as an emerald on the Queen’s finger. Not a nerve out of place, which was surprising considering she called 911 for a break-in.
“It’s my aunt’s cabin. I’ll be living here though.”
“And you are?” he asked. “Your aunt’s name too.” He’d pulled out his notebook, ready to write.
“Gemma Anderson. My aunt is Julie Anderson. I called her when I got here. She had sent someone over to clean and I could tell right away that cleaning wasn’t the only thing that had been done.”
“Did you walk through to see if anything was missing?” he asked. He’d get the rest of the information from the trooper before he left.
“No. My aunt told me to leave and call nine-one-one, so that is what I did. I sat in my car until someone arrived.”
“If you’ve got time, why don’t you walk through with me?”
She nodded and put her phone in the back pocket of her shorts, then moved toward the cabin with him following behind. He shouldn’t be looking at her nice tight ass…unfortunately, his eyes seemed to have a mind of their own.
When she hesitated at the front door, he almost bumped into her. “Can we go in?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said, his lips twitching. “You don’t seem like you’re all that upset, so why the hesitation now with two armed police here?”
She dipped her head down, a shy move, an adorable one. He had a weakness for adorable too. Fast and loose had never been his type of woman. Probably because he’d seen his mother go through men like water gushing over a fall. His father went through just as many women. If anyone knew a slut at first glance, it was Blake.
Gemma Anderson was anything but fast, loose, or a slut. He knew right away without knowing anything else about her and he’d always been a good judge of character.
“I’m not sure. I guess it’s starting to feel a bit more real now that I’ve got to go in and look around. I’m not going to really know if anything is missing. I haven’t been here in years.”
“But you’re going to be staying here now?” he asked as they moved forward. He looked around at the open living and dining area. The kitchen was off to the side and partially closed in. The place was modern enough and neat. Cozy was a better word for it.
“Like I said, it’s my aunt’s place. She comes here a few times a year to relax. I’m starting a new job here and she told me to stay while I try to find a place.”
“Makes sense,” he said. “What do you think just looking around?”
“It doesn’t seem to me like much was touched other than someone slept on the couch and used the kitchen. They didn’t even make much of a mess other than leaving their trash behind.”
He opened the fridge and saw it was empty, so nothing in there to have been taken, he didn’t think. “Did she leave it stocked full of food for you?”
“No. She wouldn’t have. She just had someone come clean it.” Gemma started to open and close cabinets. “My aunt is meticulous about organization and it looks like nothing has been touched that I can see.”
He had to admit everything was lined up like soldiers going to war. He’d know; he’d been in the Army. He did his two tours and left the minute he could.
“Let’s check out the bathroom. My guess is they made use of that too.”
He followed her out of the kitchen and down a little hall into an average-sized bathroom. Nothing fancy by any means, but updated. This place looked like a vacation home even though it wasn’t on the water. Not that it was unheard of for someone to have a vacation home on a residential street, but there wasn’t much here on this road just outside of town.
“There’s a dirty towel that I’ll be throwing out,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
“We’ll take it in for evidence,” he said. “Don’t touch it. But aside from that, it doesn’t look like they did anything else other than clean up.”
“I’ll check the rooms now. I hope to heck they didn’t sleep in the beds.”
He saw her shiver, but had a feeling the bedrooms would be fine. It was probably some hiker on the paths not that far from the backyard of the cabin that wandered down. By the mud on the tiles in the foyer that looked to have been partially wiped up, he’d bet that hiker got caught in the downpours they had last week and was looking for cover.
Gemma opened the first door, which looked to be a guest room. There wasn’t much in it but a dresser and a bed. He walked forward and glanced around, opened the closet, saw it was bare, then realized the bed was neat and tightly made.
“Looks like this room wasn’t disturbed.”
“This is the master. Well, the bigger of the two rooms,” she said, opening another door.
He looked around and saw more of the same. Nothing seemed out of place. “If I was to hazard a guess, a hiker probably made his way out of the woods during the last storm we had a few days ago. Maybe he’s good at picking locks and stayed for the night. He, or she, even tried to wipe up the mud on the floor. They probably ate and then left and forgot to fold the blanket, but otherwise they didn’t do much more.”
“Yeah, I kind of got that impression myself. Now I’m worried these locks are easy to break into though.”
He walked back out and looked at the lock. He could see where it was scratched and easy enough for someone to pick it. “I’d get these locks changed out fast if you can. Get some nice deadbolts and you should be fine.”
“Do you know of a locksmith I can call? I wonder if I could get someone out here today though,” she said, biting on her lower lip.
Oh man, he was toast with that move and was pretty sure she had no idea what she was doing to him. “You know what? I’m off duty in a few hours. I can swing by and grab a few locks and come change them for you if you want. I doubt you’d get someone out here today and I suspect you won’t sleep tonight if it’s not changed. There’s no way you’ll get a hotel room this short notice this time of year either.”
“I could sleep in my car,” she said.
“Which is crazy. What, are you going to sleep in the driveway here? How is that any different than inside with the doors locked?”
“It probably isn’t. I need to go into town to get some food anyway, I could get the locks if you told me what I needed. I might be able to switch them out. How hard could it be?”
She seemed like the type of person who could do just about anything. “Do you have tools?”
“I don’t. I’m not sure my aunt does either. Guess I could buy them too.”
“Or you can let me do this for you,” he said again. He hoped he wasn’t coming off as pushy.
“Do you do this for all the new people in town?”
“Only those that have had Goldilocks staying in their cabin.”
She laughed and those green eyes of hers started to almost glow. “Cute. If you insist, I’d appreciate it. Like I said, I have to go to get some food in town. I could cook you dinner as payment.” She stopped and looked down at his left hand suddenly. “I mean that is if you don’t have dinner waiting for you at home.”
“Nothing is waiting for me at home but some leftover pizza from last night,” he said.
“Then, yes. If you don’t mind doing it, I’d really appreciate it. When can I start bringing my stuff in to unpack? It’s really just clothes at the moment.”
“Why don’t you give us another twenty minutes or so. I’m sure by now the trooper that was here first has taken fingerprints and has been talking to neighbors for any signs of other activity.”
“Okay. I’ll just go outside and call my aunt back, then make a list of things I need to buy when I go into town.”
He nodded his head and tried to avert his eyes from her lovely backside as she walked out the front door, but damn it was hard.