17

“I don’t know how we’ll ever get at the truth,” Olivia said as they drove out of the city. She realized that although she’d discovered something she hadn’t wanted to know, she’d been glad to get away—even if Nashville wasn’t really “away.” Any trip there, however brief, was a pleasure; the city was sophisticated and filled with music and charm and yet still had a small-town feel.

But she loved the Horse Farm, too. She had adored Marcus; she’d cared about Aaron. But Aaron might have gone crazy before he’d died—or been killed. Every clue seemed to lead them in circles.

“We will,” Dustin said in a reassuring voice. He was driving, and she sat in the passenger seat, gazing out the window, wishing she could roll back time.

“What now?” she asked him.

“I’ll call Frank in a little while and find out if he’s come across anything new.” He reached over and squeezed her hand. “Hungry?”

“Yes, actually. We never did have lunch. We could turn around. I know some incredible restaurants on Elm Pike or back by Music Row.”

He grinned at her. “I was thinking more of the caf?.”

“I thought Jane was going.”

“Maybe she hasn’t gone yet. Maybe we should all meet up there.”

“And to think I once really enjoyed that caf?!” she said.

“Grab my phone and call Jane. See if they want to meet us there for an early dinner. Someone should stay at the Horse Farm, though.”

“All right.” As directed, she got his phone. Jane hadn’t been to the caf? yet; she and Abby had spent most of the afternoon on the computer, hacking into her coworkers’ social network sites.

“You can do that?” she asked Jane.

“Sometimes. Pretty easy in this case. Your coworkers use their email addresses as their user names and the name of one of the horses as their passcodes. It wasn’t terribly hard.”

“And?”

“No red flags, but we’ll talk at the caf?.”

Olivia leaned back in the passenger seat.

“Tired?” he asked.

She glanced at him. “Well—I’m tired of being on edge,” she said. “Uh, where are we sleeping tonight?” She meant the question to sound very casual.

“Your house,” he told her. “Jane and Sloan will remain at the Horse Farm, and Malachi and Abby will go and stay at Marcus’s house—or more accurately, your other house.”

“Oh,” she said. “Will everyone know that?” she asked carefully.

She thought he was smiling. “I don’t think Malachi will mind.”

“He’s kind of protective….”

“He just wanted to make sure I knew how extraordinary you are.”

“He is my cousin.”

“I assured him that I think you’re completely extraordinary.”

“Ah,” she murmured.

He was quiet for a few minutes. “We’ve talked a little about what others see as our strange experiences. Do you remember the first time you had one of those experiences—when you saw a ghost?”

“It was the general,” she said. “I saw him sitting proudly on his horse. He was so dignified. And I wasn’t afraid…. And, of course, there was Malachi’s resident ghost. He lives in the family home in Virginia. I sometimes wondered when I was young if I really saw him or if it was just Malachi’s way of teasing me. But…he was a good ghost. A family ghost. You’d never be afraid of him. I haven’t spent my life having conversations with ghosts, though. Not the way it seems the rest of you have.”

“Ghosts don’t always have a reason to speak or make themselves known,” Dustin said. “But once you’ve gotten accustomed to the fact that the dead can walk—and speak—you can seek them out. Not everyone, of course. But you definitely have the talent.”

“Talent,” she echoed. She closed her eyes. “If I didn’t have the ‘talent,’ as you say, I would’ve been forced to accept—whether I really believed it or not—that Marcus had relapsed. And in that case…Aaron might still be alive. There might be hope for the Horse Farm.”

“But Marcus Danby deserves justice. You know that.”

“I do.”

“But…” he began. He didn’t finish. It was almost as if he regretted speaking at all.

“But?” she demanded. “Don’t you dare give me a ‘but’ and then go silent!”

He looked over at her. For a moment she wished she’d met him under better circumstances. She loved the line of his jaw, the strength of his conviction and inner resolve and, admittedly, she loved lying in bed with him….

“Jackson would find a place for you,” he murmured. “Jackson Crow. Working with one of the units. You could even be based in northern Virginia.”

She laughed. “Dustin, I know how to fire a tranquilizer gun, but I’ve never held a real firearm in my life. I’m a coward!”

“If we didn’t have the sense to be afraid, we’d be worthless. Fear can consume you—or it can make you wary and intelligent about what you do and how you do it. I’m just saying that if you were looking to move…on to something else…”

“If the Horse Farm goes under and we’re forced to find homes for the animals and sell the land, I’ll have to,” she said.

“It hasn’t happened.”

“It is happening.”

He squeezed her hand again. “We’ll find the truth, and the truth could repair all the harm that’s been done.”

“So far it looks as if our founder died of an overdose and our first-in-command was so off his rocker that he nearly drowned and then managed to electrocute himself in his bathtub. The other alternative—to the average observer—is that one or more people who work at the Horse Farm is a devious, bloodthirsty murderer.”

“The truth could still salvage the situation,” he insisted. “Whatever that truth is.”

They’d driven off I-40 and taken the back road. She could see the caf? ahead; the SUV in which Malachi and his team had arrived was parked in the lot.

Olivia braced herself to go in.

The Krewe agents already had the largest table at the caf?, the one at the far end, away from the door. As Olivia and Dustin walked through to join them, Delilah was serving a coffee refill to a lone tourist. She returned the pot to the burner and came toward them and, as Olivia had feared, she threw both arms around her in a huge hug. The last thing Olivia felt she could cope with right now was pity.

“Oh, honey, I am so sorry. I can’t imagine how hard this is for you—all of you. But Sandra, well, she’s a tough bird, and Mariah and Mason just aren’t as invested… Oh, and poor Drew and Sydney! What will they do? They’ve both given their lives to that place!” Delilah said. “Anyway, I’m so sorry about Aaron! Now,” she added briskly, “what can I get you, love?”

“Iced tea would be great, Delilah.”

“Same for me,” Dustin said.

“Well, this table is just one big group of tea drinkers!” Delilah chuckled. “I have chicken potpie tonight, and if I do say so myself, it’s the best!”

“Chicken potpie?” Malachi asked, looking around the table to nods of assent. “We’ll make it easy, Delilah. We’ll all have potpie.”

“Why, that is easy!” Beaming, Delilah bustled off to fill their order.

“I see you’ve gotten to know her,” Olivia said to the others.

Jane smiled. “It’s impossible not to get to know Delilah.”

“What did you learn?” Malachi asked.

“Aaron bought the drawing of the general,” Dustin said, getting right to the point.

“You’re sure?

“I know his handwriting—and I know Horse Farm checks,” Olivia said.

“But,” Abby argued, “his buying the art doesn’t mean he put it in the forest during the camping trip. Or even if he did, it might have been a practical joke.”

“We don’t play practical jokes,” Olivia said. “Not when we’re dealing with kids who are struggling with addiction or other issues.”

“He might have intended it for some other purpose,” Malachi said. “Maybe he bought the artwork and then someone else discovered it—and took it.”

“And used his horse?” Olivia asked grimly. “I suppose that if anyone had a motive to kill Marcus, it would’ve been Aaron. And, of course, if anyone had a motive to kill Aaron…people would think it’s me.”

“Except,” Dustin pointed out, “by the time it got to you, so much damage would be done to the Horse Farm’s reputation that you really wouldn’t have a motive to kill him—certainly not this quickly.”

“Shh,” Malachi warned.

Delilah came sweeping down on them with a massive tray. Chicken potpies were served with a large plate of biscuits. Delilah fluttered around the table, making sure they had butter, jam and honey for the biscuits, silverware and iced tea refills. When she was finished, she said, “Olivia, honey, have you heard from that lawyer fellow yet?”

Olivia shook her head, feeling a little guilty. “No, I haven’t. I do need to call him.”

“Well, I just wanted to let you know. One of my regulars—another attorney fellow who runs back and forth between Nashville and Memphis—was asking me about it. I just wanted you to know that if it comes to selling, which of course I hope it won’t, he’ll buy the place. He’ll meet the price Marcus always wanted so the money could go to his charities. If you have to sell, you let me know.”

Olivia forced a smile. “Thanks, Delilah.”

“Who is this attorney, Delilah?” Dustin asked.

“Name is Henry Whittaker. His main office is in Nashville. I’m sure you can find him easy enough. If not, I’ve got his card somewhere.”

She beamed at them again and swept off.

“We’ve been thinking about this all wrong,” Dustin said.

Olivia gave him a puzzled look. “How do you mean?”

“Well, we suspected Aaron might have killed Marcus—because he’d get to be in charge of the Horse Farm. But Aaron’s out of the picture. I don’t think someone wants to kill everyone in order to run the Horse Farm. I think someone wants it to fail.”

“But why?” Olivia asked.

“That’s what we have to figure out. Sloan, anything on the women today?”

“Sandra Cheever never left her house. I followed Mariah to the Horse Farm and she saw both Sydney and Drew, hugged them a lot, cried a little—and then I followed her back to her place. She didn’t leave again. There’s still a deputy watching over Sandra.” He glanced at Olivia. “I called the office in Virginia and had a trace put on your boy Mason’s credit cards. He’s been in Nashville. Last uses were at the Country Music Hall of Fame and then a restaurant on Music Row.”

“We can’t solve anything tonight. I say we eat our potpies and get a good night’s sleep,” Malachi told them.

“I’m going to take Liv for a drive first,” Dustin said. “I think we should stop in and see the Horse Farm guests who live at Parsonage House.”

Olivia nodded. She wasn’t sure what they’d get from the boys, but she agreed that it was a good idea for her, as one of their therapists, to see them. They must be in shock. None of them had been particularly close to Aaron, but they knew him.

And now he was dead.

* * *

As she and Dustin left the diner, Malachi requested the keys to Marcus Danby’s house. Dustin must have discussed the plans with him while she was in the restroom. She found the keys in her bag; as she handed them to her cousin, she asked, “Do you think anyone’s made any attempt to get in there? Is there something they could be looking for?”

“We’ll go through whatever papers we can find. Sometimes even a greeting card can be a clue. Or he might have received some other correspondence that didn’t seem significant to him at the time,” Malachi replied.

“You don’t think you’re in any danger there, do you?”

He shrugged. “I doubt it, but it’s not impossible. Marcus doesn’t understand why anyone would kill him so there’s definitely some unknown factor here. However, Abby and I are both well trained and,” Malachi added with a grin, “we’re armed.”

When they’d all said good-night, Olivia and Dustin drove the short distance to Parsonage House. They were greeted by the director, Lance Osterly, a kindly, middle-aged man who still had the look of a pro wrestler—which he’d been at one point in his life.

“Liv, good to see you,” he greeted her as he waved them both in. He nodded at Dustin. “And you’re the FBI man, right? The boys talk a lot, you know,” he said with a wink.

Dustin offered his hand to Osterly.

“I’m sorry about Aaron,” Osterly told Olivia.

“I am, too. It’s so strange—I don’t even know how to handle this one,” she said.

Osterly shook his head. “The poor guy survives what should’ve killed him, and he still dies in a ridiculous way. The kids have talked of nothing else for the past few days. Anyway, I appreciate that you’re here. Come on—they’re outside on the patio.”

Osterly escorted them to a back door, which led to a pool and patio; the pool was covered until warmer weather returned but the patio was pretty with a rock wall fireplace and plenty of seating.

“Liv!” Joey was the first on his feet, rushing over to her. She thought of him as a boy, but he wasn’t really; he was an adolescent, taller than her—and awkward, as many young men his age were. She greeted him with a hug. By then, Matt, Sean and Nick had joined them, and she realized that although they were once-upon-a-time tough-guy addicts, now they were scared.

“You’re all doing okay?” Dustin asked them.

“We’re—we’re in an awful dilemma,” Matt said. “We know we’re okay and everything will be fine, but our parents are acting paranoid.”

“Somebody killed Aaron, right?” Nick asked. “I mean, I can’t forget that morning at the campsite. He almost drowned. And then he electrocuted himself in a bathtub? That’s what they’re saying—that’s what we’re supposed to believe. And changing our lives, going clean, is all about being honest, but there’s no honesty going on here.”

“And,” Sean muttered, “our parents have all been on the phone with Mr. Osterly. They’re questioning our safety.”

“I have another six weeks here,” Matt said. “They’re talking about pulling me out. I don’t want to go, Olivia. It’s like this place saved my life and a lot of that’s because of the horses. They taught me about boundaries and respect and they made me…they made me want a different life. A good life.”

“Some of us want to become therapists,” Joey told her. “Equine therapists.”

Olivia glanced at Dustin, grateful that he’d decided they should come here.

“Listen to me, all of you,” she said. “We will find out what happened. What they’re telling you isn’t a pack of lies—it’s just all anyone knows. But wherever you go from here, whatever you do—nothing changes the incredible strides you’ve made or the wonderful young people you are. I’m so proud of every one of you, and I’d love to see you go forward and get into therapy or working with horses, or whatever you feel is best for you.”

She felt Dustin’s hands on her shoulders. “You know we don’t believe Marcus Danby fell back into drugs,” he said. “And despite the fact that it appears Aaron was alone when he died, it’s just too ironic or coincidental—or stupid—to believe. Sometimes, though, it takes time to uncover the truth. If you are pulled out of this facility, don’t forget what you had here—your friendships, everything you learned. And you can call on us anytime.”

The boys nodded.

“Now, do any of you know anything?” Dustin asked.

They looked back at him wide-eyed.

“Like what?” Matt asked.

“Were you all around the day Marcus died?”

“Yeah—until Aaron called Mr. Osterly to have the van come and pick us up because they were all going off to look for Marcus,” Matt said.

“Do you remember anything odd about that day?” Dustin asked.

“Poor Sammy, coming back looking like he’d met up with a bear,” Sean said.

“Before that, did any of you notice if the horses were all there?” Olivia asked.

“I was playing Ping-Pong. I didn’t even see Sammy until everyone started screaming,” Nick said.

Joey frowned, then suddenly grew excited. “I didn’t see the big guy—Gargantua. I like him a lot. Olivia used him now and then, I guess to show us that the biggest, toughest animals—and people—could be the kindest if that was the choice they made.” He looked at Olivia.

“Something like that,” Olivia agreed. “Did you ask anybody about him?”

“Yeah, I did. Sandra was there, and I saw her heading for Aaron’s office. I asked her if they’d let somebody take Gangantua out. She said he was probably just hanging around by the trees and we couldn’t see him. I don’t think she was paying much attention to me. She seemed distracted,” Joey said.

“She was distracted before Sammy came back injured?” Olivia asked.

Joey nodded.

“But she was there,” Dustin said.

Joey nodded again.

“Who else do you remember being in the office right before you were sent back and everyone went riding off to find Marcus?” Dustin asked.

“I think Sandra’s the only one. And then Aaron, once Sammy showed up. And then everyone,” Joey said.

“I saw Mason.” Matt grinned. “He was fixing his hair in the mirror in back.”

“Thanks,” Dustin told them.

“You guys are great, and what you’ve accomplished is great,” Olivia said. “No matter what happens.”

They wished the boys a good night, thanking Lance Osterly.

“No, thank you. They really respect you, Liv. I’m praying that all this gets sorted out quickly. We offer the kids all kinds of stuff here—group therapy, individual therapy, art therapy, massage therapy—you name it. But there’s nothing like the Horse Farm for most of our boys.”

“We’ll keep it afloat—and we’ll get our reputation back, I promise,” Olivia said fervently.

When they reached the car, she burst out with, “What a liar I am!”

“You’re not a liar.”

“An impossible dreamer, then.”

“I keep telling you, when we discover the truth, the world will spin more smoothly on its axis.” They stopped by the Horse Farm to pick up Sammy. The stables were quiet; evidently Drew and Sydney had gone to bed for the night.

Sloan and Jane Everett were still up, though. Of course, sleeping on couches couldn’t have been conducive to going to bed early. Jane had been looking through Aaron’s correspondence. “I found an offer from a firm, sent to Aaron. He must’ve ignored it and shoved it in his desk,” Jane said.

“What kind of offer?” Olivia asked.

“An offer for the property. It’s from the offices of that Nashville attorney Delilah mentioned. Henry Whittaker. And it came last week.”

“He wanted to buy the Horse Farm—and went straight to Aaron?” Olivia asked, puzzled. “But an attorney would know, or could easily find out, just how tied up the place was! Why didn’t he go directly to Fairchild?” When she saw Jane’s puzzled look, she explained. “Fairchild was Marcus’s attorney, and he’s been dealing with everything concerning the Horse Farm.”

“Well, this is a friendly letter. It just says that if the Horse Farm is ever in trouble, he’s willing to pay a more-than-fair asking price for the property and buildings, and to see that the charities nearest and dearest to him received the greatest benefit,” Jane said.

She showed them the letter.

Olivia said, “I can’t imagine that an attorney from Nashville would be able to manage any of this without insider assistance.”

“No, I don’t think that’s possible, either,” Sloan agreed. “But it does speak to the theory that someone is trying to ruin the Horse Farm rather than take it over.”

“Maybe we’ll head back to Nashville in the morning,” Dustin said. “But right now…we need to let Sammy search Liv’s house before we go inside!”

They left the Horse Farm, with Sammy happily back in the car, sticking his nose between them. When they reached the house, Sammy showed no sign of fear or suspicion.

Olivia let Dustin and the dog search for evidence that there’d been any sign of invasion in their absence and went up to shower. She didn’t bother dressing; she went straight into the bedroom and waited.

Twenty minutes later, Dustin came to her room.

She saw him in the doorframe for a moment, and the longing and anticipation she’d been feeling seemed to overwhelm her. She loved his analytical mind, his concern for others, his kindness….

She also loved the way he looked, so tall and powerfully built. She loved the scent of him when he walked in, and she loved the feel of his naked flesh when he lay down beside her.

Their mouths met in a kiss that seemed desperate. But she had to touch him, all of him, taste him, feel his heat and passion rush through her. She felt his lips, his tongue, move over her breasts and down to her belly and below, felt his vibrant life and strength. The pulse of the world became that of her heart as she kissed and teased and stroked him in return. She crawled atop him and looked into his eyes, and he smiled and grasped her, and then he was in her…. The first time was frantic.

The second began slowly…and became frantic.

They lay together, panting, slick and sweaty and still entangled, and she breathed again.

“Hot enough?” he asked, his voice a teasing whisper in her ear.

“I feel like an inferno,” she whispered back.

She felt her heart begin to slow. She touched him again. The third time their lovemaking remained slow for long enough that she kissed nearly every inch of his flesh, felt his fingers touch her everywhere, felt the passion in his kiss. They spiraled out of control and lay entwined together once again.

She nearly dozed and then realized he still lay awake, staring at the ceiling.

He sensed her movement.

“I was just thinking about what Jane and Sloan told us,” he said. “I still can’t believe a Nashville lawyer could have pulled any of this off without insider assistance. I somehow doubt he’s really involved, except in a nominal way. Besides, there’s other property available in the Tennessee hills. It has to be more personal and yet…that might well be the key.”

“And I thought you were dreaming about hot and sweaty.”

He grinned and pulled her close. “We’re almost there,” he said.

“Almost?”

“No, no, I meant almost as in discovering what’s going on.”

“How do you figure?”

“We know it’s someone who has something to do with the Horse Farm—”

“You’ve said that from the beginning.”

“But…now I’m positive that two people had to be involved.” He rolled over to look at her. “Two people—that means each of the killers can have an alibi. For instance, we wouldn’t think it was Sandra because Joey saw her. We wouldn’t think it was Sydney because he was watching over the Horse Farm while we were out camping. We wouldn’t think it was Mariah—because she was screaming while Aaron was on the verge of drowning.”

“So where does that get us? We wouldn’t think it was Aaron—because he actually wound up dead?”

“There’ll be a way to trip someone up,” Dustin said. “Now…”

“We’ll trip them up now?”

“No, I think we’re ready to get hot and sweaty again now.”

She laughed and curled into his arms as he kissed her. And she wished the night could go on forever.

Eventually, they both slept.

* * *

When Olivia woke the next morning, she saw that his eyes were still closed. She started to get out of bed, trying not to disturb him. But she saw him smile and realized he’d probably wake at the slightest sound.

“You look cute, cuddled there,” she told him.

“Cute?” he asked indignantly.

“I’m going to go put coffee on.”

Sliding from bed, she slipped into her robe. She was surprised that Sammy wasn’t sleeping at his usual post in the hallway.

“Sammy?” she called. His food and water bowl were in the kitchen, and she assumed he’d gotten tired of waiting for her.

Still, she walked cautiously down the stairs.

When she reached the landing, she paused, gasping.

There was Sammy. He was curled at the foot of the sofa, lying near the first of the three men in her parlor—Marcus Danby, who sat at one end.

General Rufus Cunningham sat in the wing-back chair, straight and dignified as ever in his uniform, his cavalry hat in his lap.

Aaron Bentley was at the other end of the sofa.

When he saw her, he rose.

“I did not kill Marcus!” he said, his words trembling with passion. “And I most certainly did not idiotically kill myself!”

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