Publisher: Ballantine Books (April 27, 2004)
For six years, Carly Nolan has built a life for herself and her son Christopher, never getting too close to anyone. Nobody in the sleepy little beach community of Twilight Cove suspects she is running—from the mistakes she made in her youth, the memory of her fiancé Rick and his unexpected death, and the rich, powerful people who want to take away her child. All that is about to change.
Private investigator Jake Montgomery has been searching for the elusive Caroline Graham since the day she disappeared with Rick's baby. When he finally finds her living under an assumed name, she's no longer a wild teenager, but a devoted, utterly captivating single mother. Cautiously, Carly dares to trust an outsider for the first time in years. She never imagines that Jake, caught between his mission and his growing passion, poses a threat to her protected world. If her secrets are revealed, Carly risks losing the child she holds so dear—and the man who possesses the key to her heart.
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The young woman stared at the well-dressed lawyer across the squalid room. A man in his late forties, he hadn't smiled once since she let him in. Nor had she – not since he'd offered her money for her baby.
Wearing a three-piece suit and monogrammed socks that cost more than she made in tips on a good night, with shoes that dared to shine through a fine layer of Borrego dust, he was as out of place here as filet mignon at a fish fry.
His crisp, spotless business card lay on the arm of the ripped love seat where she waited, mute and terrified, for him to stop talking. Arthur Litton, from the firm of Somebody, Somebody, and Some Other Lawyer, had made the three-hour drive from Long Beach to meet with her – but just now he was brushing at the knee of his suit. A waste of time when a fine coating of sand covered every surface in the room.
Even the mute images of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz on the television cavorted beneath a dusty haze.
The lawyer's voice was well modulated and cool, betraying no hint of emotion. It made the young woman's skin crawl. She watched his thin lips move, tried to concentrate on the words.
"Now that you've heard the terms, are you willing to accept my clients' offer?"
She opened her mouth, but didn't trust what might come out, so she swallowed and tightened her arms around the six-month-old infant in her arms. Her baby boy. Her son.
Her hands shook as she shifted Christopher to her shoulder. That morning she'd dressed him in pale blue sleepers with little brown bears romping over them. She wished it was still early instead of nearly noon – wished she could turn back the clock and start the day over.
"Let me get this straight," she said softly. "You came here to buy my baby?"
"That's putting it bluntly. His grandparents want him."
"They expect me to just hand him over and walk away?"
"They're willing to pay a seven-figure settlement for the privilege of raising their only son's child. They want nothing but the best for him, and they want things their way."
"You mean they want me out of the way. I'm his mother."
"They could file a petition for guardianship."
She didn't know anything about the law but enough to know she didn't want any part of a custody fight – not with her background.
"We're prepared to prove the child will be better off with the Saunders." He paused, pointedly gazed around the room again.
The place looked like a bomb had gone off inside it. Her roommate, Wilt, always said he "wasn't expecting f-ing Martha Stewart, and if people don't like the way I keep house, they can f-ing stop coming over." His old trucking buddies never minded the mess, and since this was Wilt's house, she never insulted him by cleaning.
The living and dining rooms were full of pieces of cast-off furniture. Art supplies were strewn all over – canvases, tubes of paint, rags, and turpentine. A palette of fingerprint smears marred the door frames.
Her own desert landscapes, from her earliest attempts to her latest, were scattered around the room. Smaller pieces hung on one wall in the dining room, just above a battered Early American table.
A moonscape complete with a howling coyote and an eerie silver-blue glow – Wilt's latest passion was painting on black velvet -- rested on an easel near the kitchen door.
When the lawyer showed up at the door asking for her, Wilt took cover in the kitchen. Now she heard the sound of ice hitting the bottom of a glass and the freezer door close. She knew that her roommate was close enough to hear every word.
Litton spoke again.
"My clients are certainly in a position to raise the boy the way Richard Saunders would have wanted him raised."
"Rick wanted to marry me. He wanted to raise Christopher with me."
"But Richard is dead, isn't he? He's not here to say what he did or didn't want."
"I'm Chris's mother. They can't have him, and they can't take him away from me."
"A private investigative firm has started a background search on you." Without even looking at documents, he began listing all the things they'd dug up, reciting them like a litany.
"You were born in Albuquerque, a drug baby whose mother walked out and left you at the hospital. You were raised in a series of foster homes. Social services listed you as a problem child with tendencies to disrupt the environment in every situation in which you were placed. You were charged with shoplifting when you were fourteen and ran away from the last home you were in at seventeen. Six months later, you applied for a California driver's license. You have been openly living with Mr. Walton, a sixty-four-year-old retiree, for four years . . ."
"We're just roommates."
"My clients can make this extremely hard on you. The Saunders are very wealthy people with a lot of influence in Southern California. You haven't enough money or connections to fight them."
He leaned forward, as if he had no stake in the outcome of her decision, as if he were speaking from the heart. "If you're smart, you'll take the money."
"But, surely they can't just buy my baby . . ."
Mr. Litton's hand closed around the handle of his briefcase. He paused, then sighed heavily. He stood, looked directly into her eyes. "Take the money and we'll draw up a contract. They will legally adopt the boy. You'll be a very wealthy young woman with your whole life ahead of you."
Anger quickly replaced her initial shock. She shook her head, knowing in her heart that this wasn't right. None of it was what Rick would have wanted for her or for Christopher.
She and Rick Saunders had spent only a month together, but they'd been lovers right from the start. He'd blown into town like a desert dust devil, riding around in a hot, new Porsche, buying up land he planned to develop as soon as he returned from a year in Japan, working for his father's shipping company.
He'd never made her any promises. She'd expected none and never asked for any. It was enough to be with him, to bask in the warmth of a smile that burned bright as a comet in the midnight desert sky.
At the end of the month, Rick left for Japan as planned. She hadn't heard from him again until three weeks ago when he had shown up on the doorstep. That was the day she'd told him that she had given birth to his son.
Once he had laid eyes on Christopher, he shocked her by immediately proposing. Deep in her heart, she knew it wasn't out of love, but that Rick wanted to be with his son. He told her that he wanted them to be a family, and she accepted his proposal, hoping that his love for their son was enough to build a marriage on.
A few days later, Rick drove to Long Beach to break the news about her and Christopher and their plans to his parents. She had been packed and waiting the day Rick was on his way back to Borrego to pick them up and take them home, but he never made it.
The Porsche went off the road, and Rick died at the bottom of a ravine amid a twisted tangle of metal and sandstone boulders.
Three days later, while she mourned not only Rick but the end of a dream, the Saunders finally returned her calls, told her they would be holding a private memorial, but that she was not invited. She tried to understand, to make excuses for them. The Saunders didn't know her, they were grieving. Perhaps they blamed her for Rick's death. If he hadn't been on his way to get her . . .
"Rick wanted to marry me." She spoke softly, more to reassure herself than anything else. "Just because he's gone, that . . . that doesn't mean I don't want his son. I gave birth to Christopher because I wanted him. I intended to raise him by myself before Rick found out our baby even existed. Once he saw Christopher, he wanted us to be a family."
"I'm afraid we only have your word on that." Litton pointedly gazed around the room again. "Do you honestly think he would want his son raised like this?" He leveled his cool, emotionless gaze on her. "Perhaps the amount the Saunders are offering isn't enough. If that's the case, I'm sure they'll up the ante."
Christopher stirred. Caroline patted his bottom, juggled him against her shoulder. Fear crept in to close around her, enough fear to give her a burst of courage. She stood and continued to stare up at the lawyer.
"Get out, Mr. Litton."
"If you're smart, you'll reconsider."
"You'll be hearing from my clients again. They don't take refusal lightly."
As soon as the door closed on Litton, she sat down again, too drained to move. She heard the slap of Wilt's bare feet on the kitchen linoleum before the sound was silenced when he stepped onto the balding shag carpet. His heavy hand, reassuring, solid, soon came to rest on her shoulder.
"Goddamn it to hell." Wilt always had a way of summing things up in as few words as possible.
She couldn't make her mind work. Christopher was fussing, kicking his sturdy legs, tugging at the front of her T-shirt.
"What am I going to do, Wilt?"
"Hell if I know, but whatever you decide, I'm with you." He cleared the back of the couch, walked around and sat in the lima-bean-green velour chair that Litton had just vacated. A glass of ice water in his hand dripped condensation, forming a moist stain on the arm of the chair. His plaid flannel shirt was rumpled, slept in; his baggy navy-blue sweatpants oozed over the sides of his suntanned bare feet. More gray than blond, a heavy walrus mustache hid his upper lip.
Wilt had been her rock, her savior when he picked her up on the side of Highway 40 in Arizona four years ago. She'd been walking alone, hitching, dazed and confused and too out of it to care what happened to her when he pulled his rig over and offered her a ride. After miles and hours together, he'd opened his home to her, offered to keep her off the streets.
Over the past four years, Wilt had become the grandfather she never knew. One day while he was painting, he gave her a blank canvas, a few hints on blending color and filled a palette with paint for her. He had seen some doodles she'd done on scratch paper and encouraged her to sketch landscapes, recognizing what he called raw talent. Slowly, with his guidance, she learned to paint.
She came to trust him with her life and would trust him with Chris's too. But that afternoon, sitting there amid the dust and the oddly comforting chaos, she had a feeling that even Wilt couldn't help her now.
She waited until late afternoon when he drove down to the fruit stand for grapefruit. She dressed Christopher, packed his diaper bag.
Wilt kept his emergency money in an old Folgers' coffee can in plain sight on a shelf in the kitchen cupboard. He'd shown it to her when she moved in, told her that he was being up front with her and expected the same, even if she was just a kid. He also added that if she ever needed the money for a real emergency, she was welcome to it.
As she took the can down off the shelf and pulled off the plastic lid, she figured there probably would never be a bigger emergency in her life and that Wilt would agree.
There was a sizable wad of bills inside the can. She didn't stop to count them, just divided them in two and shoved the rolls deep into the pockets of her jeans.
She grabbed an envelope from some junk mail lying on the cabinet by the phone, found a pencil.
There's nothing I can ever say or do to thank you for what you've done for me. You've treated me better than anyone has in a long time, so it hurts me to repay your kindness by taking your savings stash, but I've thought and thought, and I can't seem to figure out anything else to do but go where the Saunders can't find us.
I'll be easier on you if I don't tell you where I'm going. I'm not real sure where I'll end up, but I can only hope it will be someplace one-tenth as good as what I've had here with you.
Take care of yourself and keep painting. If there ever comes a time in my life when I can pick up a brush to paint again, I'll think of you.
I wish I didn't have to go.
She set the note beneath the empty coffee can in the middle of the table where he would see it first thing when he walked in.
As she threaded her way through the living room, she purposely avoided looking at all of the paintings she would leave behind. There was a piece of her soul in each and every landscape, a vision in every ghostly shadow figure she'd been inspired to include in each of them.
She'd miss the desert with its ever-changing natural drama as much as she'd miss Wilt, but there was no looking back now.
Holding Christopher close, she took one last glance around the living room before she shut the sliding glass door behind her. She was scared, but she was more frightened of the Saunders than being alone on the road again.
She had reinvented herself once before. She could do it again.
Six years later . . . California Coast
Jake Montgomery left Long Beach before dawn on Thursday morning, leaving town a day early to avoid the weekend traffic headed up the coast. After three hours of driving, the dense population centers thinned, and the land unfolded, spread out spring green and inviting. He drove past Santa Maria, cut over to old Highway One and followed the coast through Oceano and Pismo Beach.
A half owner of a private investigative firm he had founded, most of his days were spent not only enduring bumper-to-bumper traffic but L.A. road warriors venting their rage and the crowded, pulsing noise of city life as he gathered minutiae – details that among other things helped solve missing person cases, put an end to lengthy divorce proceedings, helped employers decide whether or not prospective employees had enough integrity to hire or promote.
Today the quiet solitude of the long drive helped ease the coil of tension in his gut, a coil that life in Los Angeles County tended to tighten deftly. This was the kind of getaway that his ex-wife used to talk about taking, but that was eons ago, back when they were still kids and newly married, long before they were consumed with their careers. Before there was no going back, and the marriage had ended.
Lost in thought, he missed the turnoff to Twilight Cove. Cursing under his breath, he made a U-turn and followed Alamitos Canyon Road, a two-lane highway that wound down to the ocean alongside a creek of the same name. The gentle slope lined with low-growing chaparral ended abruptly after a sharp curve, and the picturesque town of Twilight Cove appeared suddenly, like a mirage.
The canyon road traveled through the heart of a seaside village complete with a central plaza park with an old-fashioned, tiered Spanish fountain in the middle of a wide, grassy bluff overlooking the Pacific.
He slowed, checked out the various shops and stores, noted the location of The Cove Gallery before turning onto Cabrillo Road, which ran parallel to the ocean. Heading north, he found himself winding through residential sections of town, past wooden Craftsman-style houses. Most appeared to have been freshly painted. Many displayed flower boxes overflowing with alyssum, geraniums, and impatiens in delicate hues from white to pink to scarlet.
When he reached the point on the south end of the cove, he pulled into a scenic overlook, killed the engine and set the brake.
The moment he stepped outside his SUV, the onshore breeze kicked up, forcing him to zip his brown leather jacket. He walked to the guardrail. Even with mirrored sunglasses, he had to shield his eyes from the intense sunlight reflecting off the water. He watched distinct lines of swells form peaks offshore and counted six surfers in full wet suits cutting the waves on short boards. Then he turned full circle, taking in the view.
Lazy rolling hills covered in green spring grass and wildflowers tapered down both sides of the canyon to hug the cove. A few homes were scattered here and there on the hillside.
As he looked back toward the town with its idyllic Plaza Park and avenue of historic storefronts, he shook his head. The place might look like Mayberry-by-the-Sea, but as long as real people inhabited it, Twilight Cove wasn't as bucolic as it appeared to be. He'd been in the investigative business long enough to know that.
The town still resembled the California dream of a hundred years ago – what so many other beach cities would still look like if not for overdevelopment, smog, and too many rats in the maze.
The salt air was tinged with the sea and time. Standing in the cool breeze off the ocean, Jake easily imagined a clipper ship racing under billowing sails, her hold filled with wares to sell to the Spanish dons, Indians, and padres living in the shadow of the missions.
Steep steps and a narrow trail below the bluff led down to the beach. Limited parking and lack of accessibility to the cove had kept the town from becoming overrun by seasonal tourists the way Monterey and Carmel were. Twilight Cove's small strand was still pristine. Only the hardy and the surfers didn't mind tackling the steps.
If it hadn't been for obligation and the driving need to see if a hunch would pay off, he would have lingered to inhale the fresh salt air and let the strong breeze whip through his hair and clear his mind. But he wasn't here on vacation. He'd come on what just might prove to be a wild-goose chase, but he was more than willing to risk taking the time if it meant finally winding up a case that had been open far too long.
He'd driven to Twilight Cove because he was a man of detail who hated loose ends, but most of all, he had come because of a personal obligation. He'd come to Twilight out of duty to a friend as alive as ever in his memory.
* * *
The Cove Gallery was exactly as it appeared in the photos he'd seen in the Budget Traveler magazine. Uncluttered and open, with glossy golden oak floors and white walls, the interior was the perfect backdrop for the artwork displayed on the walls and freeform sculptures on platforms scattered around the room.
Jake had no sooner cleared the threshold when a slim young man sporting an artfully trimmed, pencil-thin beard along his jaw-line started across the room to greet him. He wore wire-framed glasses and was dressed entirely in black.
Geoffrey Wilson introduced himself, extended his hand in greeting, his smile both wide and genuine.
Jake shook hands. "My name's Jake Montgomery." He reached into his back pocket, pulled out a folded page carefully town from a magazine, opened it. "I saw this article on your gallery in Budget Traveler."
The article stated that Geoff Wilson was twenty-nine years old, had moved west from Chicago three years ago after having grown tired of the brutal winters in the Windy City. The gallery had been open for a year and showcased local talent.
"Wonderful!" I'm glad you stopped by. Go ahead and have a look around," Wilson invited.
"Actually," Jake pointed to the page that showed a photo of Wilson standing in front of a painting, "I'm interested in the piece on the wall behind you in this photograph. The sunset seascape with the transparent figures in the foreground."
"An excellent choice, but I sold that a month ago."
"Who's the artist?"
"A local. Carly Nolan. Cove Gallery handles her work exclusively. She's one very talented lady." He started moving toward the far corner of the room. "Carly brought in a new painting just last weekend. I'm sure you'll find it equally stunning."
"So, she lives around here?"
Wilson paused, as if assessing Jake's character for a second. "She lives nearby, yes."
Jake followed him across the room, their even footsteps echoing in unison on the bare wood floor. The painting on the wall was of good size with a weathered frame that added to the tone of the piece rather than detracted from the drama.
The painting showed the huge dark boulders that ringed the cove and hugged the bluffs as violent storm waves crashed over them. The sky was gun-metal gray, dark and forbidding as the ocean. There were no buildings, no town above the cove, just wild grasses and two ragged junipers battered by the wind.
The artist had depicted a ghostly image of a young woman dressed in the style of the early 1800s standing at the edge of the bluff overlooking the water. Entirely painted in a sheer white, as if transposed over the painting, the woman stood with the fingers of one hand clenching the fabric of her long, flowing skirt. In the other hand she held a hat as if she had forgotten it was there. Long ribbons streamed over the brim, rippling just above the ground. Her hair was unbound, in wild disarray.
She was tall and light but her features were as subtly depicted as the rest of her, almost as if the artist wanted the viewer to wonder if there was actually a woman in the painting at all.
She could have been beautiful, or perhaps not. The artist left it up to the viewer to decide.
"This oil is of Twilight Cove from a different angle, one of the most dramatic pieces Ms. Nolan has done to date. Any work that showcases the cove tends to sell quickly. Visitors are so impressed by the beauty of this place that they want to take home a memory that will last a lifetime." Wilson rolled up onto his toes, settled back on his heels and smiled. "Not to mention the good investment that original oils become."
The Nolan piece was appealing in a haunting, ethereal way. Staring into the waves on the canvas was almost as hypnotic as watching the ocean. Not only that, but Jake found himself haunted by questions. Why was the young woman alone? Why had she gone to the edge of the bluff during a storm?
Except for a change of weather and time, it was a perfect rendition of the view he'd seen from the scenic viewpoint.
A label on the wall beside the painting listed the title as "Waiting." The price was more than adequate for a local unknown. The name Carly Nolan was printed neatly beneath the title.
"This one's a little dramatic for my taste," Jake said. "Do you have anything else she's done?"
Wilson's smile luffed at the corner like a sail losing wind. "Not at the moment. Are you staying in town or just passing through?"
"I was planning on staying until Monday, if I can find a place."
Geoff leaned forward conspiratorially. "Luckily it's the off-season. I can call a fine B and B right here in town."
"That'd be great."
Jake followed him to the counter to pick up a business card.
Wilson picked up the phone and punched in a number. He held his hand over the mouthpiece and whispered, "This is a wonderful place. So romantic."
Within two minutes Jake had a room reserved at the Rose Cottage a few blocks away. Geoff Wilson made a sticky note to himself with Jake's name on it with the reference – Nolan painting – and pressed it against the back of the counter.
Jake noticed a couple of tall baskets sitting near the cash register. One was stuffed with Chamber of Commerce maps. The other was filled with five by seven inch cards printed with bios of the gallery's featured artists. Flipping through, he realized that all but Carly Nolan's bio card showed photographs of the artists.
He picked one up and read the scant information.
Carly Nolan is a local artist new upon the scene. Her haunting painting of Twilight Cove and the surrounding landscape peopled with ghostly figures from California's colorful past are quickly becoming favorites of collectors up and down the coast. Primarily working in oils, she has captured life in the very early days of the area using her own unique vision of color, style, and imagination.
"Please, take one," Geoff urged. "Actually, if you'd like to meet her, Carly will be working here this evening. I'll tell her you might drop by."
"Really?" Jake looked down at the card, at the blank spot where the artist's photo should be, and wondered if he'd hit pay dirt.
It was his partner, Kat Vargas, who'd found the article in Budget Traveler, not him. The painting in the background of the photo had reminded her of a small oil hanging on the wall above his desk.
Noting the similarities, Kat tore out the article, brought it in and slapped in on the desk in front of him. Then she folded her arms, cocked her head, and asked, "Think it could be her? Your Obsession?"
Jake pulled his thoughts back, quickly thanked Geoff, adding that he wasn't certain he'd get by tonight but that he'd be in touch either way.
Before he left, he picked up a map as he turned to go and shoved both the biocard and map into the pocket of his brown leather jacket.
He had justified the drive up here by telling himself that he hadn't had a weekend off in so long that he couldn't remember when. But technically, this wasn't exactly a weekend off.
He was here on the off chance that Caroline Graham had finally slipped up. After six years, the young woman who seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth might have just reappeared.
It was a long shot. In fact, it was downright ridiculous to think there might be only one artist using the technique, but if Caroline Graham had surfaced, if she were still painting and now calling herself Carly Nolan, then he might have just stumbled onto a woman who had managed to elude one of the top investigative firms in Southern California.