Annabelle left her bedroom quietly and went straight outside to Miguel to ask for the car, knowing he hadn’t heard the argument with her mother. He was perfectly happy to bring out the Volvo as she pulled on her driving gloves, and she drove the familiar route up to the cabin, barely needing to check her speed. She drove certain routes so often she could feel when she drove a little bit too fast or slow. Corrections easy as breathing. Michael waited outside for her, and when he saw her approach he grinned, slicing the knife through the tape sealing off the cabin with a single, swift motion.
“I don’t think you’re allowed to do that,” she teased, following him into the cabin after he disarmed the system. She tossed her coat aside and ran her fingers through her hair, wishing she’d thought to do more than comb it that morning.
“I’ll just throw up some more tomorrow, nobody will know the difference,” he said, still grinning at her. “How do you feel, darling?”
“Better now I’m with you,” she said, burrowing her face into his chest as he hugged her tightly. Sometimes he felt a little too skinny when she did this, but that was the last thing on her mind today. “D’you want to go upstairs again, or—?”
“Let’s just share a drink here first, shall we?”
Annabelle glanced down at the chalk on the floor, but she decided if she didn’t look at the bloodstain on the carpet, it should be fine.
“Okay, just a drink or two.”
She sat down on the sofa, looking anywhere but at the mark on the floor. Michael overfilled the glasses slightly, but she didn’t feel in the mood to chide him for it. He was giving her an out, taking her out of the house, keeping her company, even if the only place they could go was the site of her sister’s murder. She held plenty of happy memories at the cabin as well, and more than a few connected with Michael. He handed her the glass and kissed her gently.
“I love you,” she whispered as he pulled away from the kiss. He gave her a grin, obviously very pleased. She leaned forward, touching his jacket. “Did you come from work?”
“Yeah, I ducked out early, said I felt sick.”
“You didn’t need to,” Annabelle said, clicking her tongue, less-than-secretly glad he had. She hadn’t been able to fall asleep, and she didn’t know what she would have done, suffocating in that house while she waited for the after-dinner walk Aunt Rose promised.
“They won’t miss you?”
“Not until dinner,” she said in a slightly teasing voice. “And it’s over an hour until that, nearly two.”
“Well, then,” he said, voice full of significance, “let’s make the most of that.”
They both took long, deep drinks of wine, and he leaned forward, after finishing off his glass far quicker than she thought possible. He kissed her jaw, then up to her ear and whispered, “Do you really love me?”
Annabelle could feel her face flushing.
“Of course,” she sighed, taking another drink of wine as he touched her cheek, kissing her ear. She’d dated before, but she’d never been the first to say those words. There was something about Michael, though, that just made her feel so comforted, so cared for, especially in the light of everything happening.
“You know, I thought I fell in love a time or two,” he said, removing her nearly empty wine glass from her hand and setting it down. He turned and took her hands in his, grasping them. “Women I really thought I would spend the rest of my life with, but they left without me.” Annabelle could hear the heartache in his voice and she frowned slightly, giving his hands a tender squeeze. “You wouldn’t leave me, would you?”
“Never,” Annabelle said eagerly.
And she meant it. She felt certain she could never love anyone more, damn what Adyson more than hinted about lack of experience. None of that mattered. Annabelle loved him. His face lifted at that single word.
“Good,” he said, smiling a little. “Good, because I love you, Annabelle. I love you so, so much. And I...I know it’s sudden, maybe even the wrong time, but I can’t think of a better time than now. I can’t wait anymore. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, to be with you forever.” He took a strand of her hair in his hand, rubbing it between his fingers for a moment, breathing in the smell of it as she grinned. “You are the most beautiful woman in the world.”
“Michael,” she giggled.
He looked up at her, hands on her jaw.
“Truly, I mean it.” He swallowed, looking like teetering on the brink of something, anticipating something. “Annabelle, you promise you love me?”
“And you’ll never leave me?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” she whispered, resting her forehead on his.
His hands tightened at her jaw for a moment. She licked her lips, her heart pounding in her chest. He leaned forward to press a kiss to her lips, and she tried to deepen it, but he felt too excited at the moment, almost agitated, and he pulled away far too quickly for her wants, but she also wanted to hear more of what he needed to say, so she sucked in a breath and waited, resting her forehead on his once more.
“Do you promise,” he said, his hands beginning to sweat, “that we will spend the rest of our lives together?”
“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do,” she sighed.
Too perfect. Perhaps she ought to wait until all of the investigations finished, but in that moment she couldn’t care less. She wanted to leave before she went mad, crawl out from under her mother’s thumb, go somewhere new, or even just move into his place.
“And if I asked you to leave with me, would you do it?” he asked. “Leave everything you know?”
Her heart truly throbbed against her chest almost painfully, but she nodded. She could taste his breath, which came in short, excited bursts.
“Really?” he pressed. “If I asked, if we left right now, you would leave with me? Just drop everything and leave with me?”
“Yes,” she said. “Please, Michael, I want to be with you. I really can’t think of anything else in the world that matters half as much to me anymore.”
This appeared to be exactly what he wanted to hear, because he leaned forward and kissed her hungrily, so passionately she thought he’d never before been so intense. She loved him this way, eager and needy, desperate. How long the kiss went on, she couldn’t be sure, but when he pulled away he yanked her to her feet and said, “Come on, we’ve no time to lose.”
She gasped and grinned.
“You want to leave right now?”
“Yes, let’s go.”
He walked toward the door and she followed him, her hands shaking as she realized the implications of what he said. Not that she didn’t want to go, but everything was moving so quickly she felt unprepared.
“But I haven’t packed anything.”
“It doesn’t matter; we’re starting over.”
He reached the door and turned around so quickly that she froze on the spot and he said, “Stand right there, I’ve forgotten something.”
Annabelle cocked her head slightly, not sure what he meant, but then he slipped his hand inside his jacket, to his inside pocket and she could feel her heart racing once more. She’d dreamed as a little girl that she would be proposed to in this cabin. It had always been her favorite place.
But her heart almost stopped altogether when instead of a little black box he pulled out a pistol, and pointed it at her.
“On your knees,” he said, his voice strange, hard like steel. She blinked at him, not sure what happened. Did he think she was the murderer? Was this all some lure to catch her by herself so he could arrest her? It felt very elaborate for that sort of thing. “On your knees!”
“Michael, I don’t understand,” she began, but he cocked the gun. “I didn’t—”
“On your knees right now,” he said sternly. “It’ll be less of a mess.”
Her heart skipped another beat and she realized she didn’t understand at all what was going on, but she followed the order, kneeling down, actually feeling the carpet and chalk against her skin. She shivered.
“What is this?” she asked.
She’d seen on Oprah that if in a shooting – although this was a bit different – you should talk to the perpetrator, keep them talking, tell them things about yourself. Except Michael already knew everything about her, so all she could try was to keep him talking, hoping eventually someone would come up to the cabin, even though it probably meant she’d need to keep him talking for an hour or more.
“We’re going to be together forever,” he said, his voice still stern.
Annabelle frowned, looking up at him. His face looked so strange from this angle, no longer the beautiful, finely chiseled features she’d so admired. His nostrils flared and his eyes looked almost sunken, like some sort of devil. It didn’t help that he pointed a gun at her head.
“We can’t be together if you kill me,” she said.
“The others all left,” he said.
“The other women I loved.” His voice tightened. “I tried to kill us both, but it always went wrong. Crashes I survived, gas leaks I survived. I burned down buildings, I tried to lose us in a snowstorm, but always they died and always I lived.”
Annabelle thought her blood actually ran cold in her body as he said this. The way he spoke, such a list and in plurals, he’d done this to others. How many others could there be?
“Julia was the last,” he said, his voice shaking. Annabelle felt her stomach falling out inside of her. He hadn’t witnessed the crash; he’d caused it. Tears glistened on his face. “I loved her so much, Annabelle, and she said she loved me. And I thought it right; I thought it time. And she fell asleep beside me in the car and I saw the tree, and it looked big enough; it really looked perfect. But I survived, and I didn’t even pass out. And I knew I needed to leave Scotland again, but she’d told me all about Vista Del Marina, so I found it. And I found you.”
He laughed, but not the laugh she knew. It sounded strained, wild, a little bit unhinged. Annabelle briefly wondered if it actually changed, or it just sounded crazy to her because she saw him for what he was, because he said such unthinkable things.
“But this is it,” he said, firmly, steadying himself and adjusting his grip on the gun. “This is what I want. You’re the one I love. You’re the right one. And we’re going to be together forever. Because this time I’m using the gun. This time, I won’t miss.” He laughed again. “I never miss.”
No, she couldn’t very well see how he could possibly miss if he shot himself in the head.
“You killed my sister,” she said slowly. “You shot her, on this very spot.”
“She meant to send you away from me,” Michael said, more tears running down his angular face. “She meant to send you to a grief place, to lock you up in there until she could rid herself of me somehow, and I couldn’t have that, Annabelle. I need you.”
Evelyn must have known something about Michael, must have discovered something. She came up to the cabin, probably at his request, agreed to talk to him because she was such a reasonable person, always willing to negotiate with anyone but Luke Hatfield. Annabelle didn’t need to wonder what happened. Because Michael wouldn’t bother negotiating, not if he was this far gone. What anyone but Annabelle thought was utterly irrelevant to him. He came inside, shot her, cleaned up after himself, drove the car far enough that the tracks would be lost, went back on foot to clean up those, and left. When Chloe Blackburn called in the morning, all he needed was to agree to check the cabin with Blake, and he would be first on the scene, not even remotely a suspect.
Annabelle dug her fingers into the carpet, her mind racing as this all hit her.
“She found out about the others,” she said, trying to find something to grasp at, anything to keep him talking. “How did she know?”
“Files your father kept,” Michael spat. “He made detailed notes on all of you. I read them all when I broke in the first time. It’s so funny how secure people feel with their locks and systems and rubbish like that. A keen memory and a careful eye can avoid almost any trouble, and police knowledge takes care of the rest. Adyson let slip that you and I.... He’d done all sorts of checking up. He didn’t know exactly what I’d done, but he didn’t like what he saw and he started making all sorts of inquiries and plans, trying to send you away, to take you away from me. And I couldn’t have that.”
Tears blurred Annabelle’s vision. It really was her fault her father died. And Evelyn. Julia wasn’t, but her father, her favorite person in the entire world, died because Annabelle fell in love with a psychopath. All he wanted was to protect her, keep her safe as he always had, shield her from whatever she’d come up against, but this time it killed him.
“So you broke in again,” she said, not daring to wipe her eyes in case the sudden movement startled him and provoked the shot she knew would come in only a matter of time. “You broke in again and killed him.”
“Easy enough,” Michael said, nodding. “I’ve studied enough crime scenes, learned enough about the physics of murder. I just needed to hit him in just the right spot, and lower him in just the right way, then raise him again enough to cause more shattering when he fell, and it looked like an accident. I didn’t have time to plan with your sister, unfortunately. She was too close to the truth.” He grinned a little. “Just like I wish we’d spent one last time together, but your aunt started to look a little too closely in the wrong places. And I’m not sure we’ll have enough time.”
Here it was, Annabelle realized, a way to buy herself perhaps as much time as she needed.
“Please?” she said, in a breathless voice she didn’t need to fake. “Please, just quickly?”
Michael’s face softened slightly, and he looked to be truly considering it. She couldn’t see his eyes well enough from her angle, but she could guess they peered down at her, thinking about how he could taste her one last time, remembering all the nights they’d spent in that cabin, and how much he’d always wanted to take her in this very room.
“Annabelle,” he said softly.
Yes, he considered it, and even if they were discovered in the middle of sex, it would be better than being discovered dead. If she was right, either her mother or aunt would call the authorities the second she was discovered missing and with any luck Adyson’s big mouth would suggest the cabin. If the police were involved, it would take maybe fifteen minutes from the mansion to the cabin, maybe less with a good driver.
“You can keep the gun on me,” she said, trying to be just a little bit coy. “I don’t mind.”
Her mistake was leaning forward slightly, though, because he adjusted his grip and frowned at her.
“Don’t move,” he snapped, and Annabelle froze, raising her hands in the air slightly, feeling stunned.
“We’re going to be together forever, Annabelle,” Michael said urgently. “We’re going to spend the rest of our lives together.”
Her heart sped up to a rate she expected was dangerous. This really wasn’t how she wanted to die, but then, maybe this maintained a little more dignity than trying to buy time with sex. Maybe.
“Don’t you move,” he said. “If you move, I’ll make it hurt.” She shivered. “You know from your sister, I can make it painless. Would you like that, Annabelle?”
Well, she had nothing left to say now.
“I’ll make it painless,” he said, taking a few steps forward, still pointing the gun right at her, but brushing his hand across her hair lovingly, like a man petting his dog. “Just for you. I don’t want my darling girl to suffer.”
“You’re sure it won’t hurt?” she managed to choke out.
The strangled quality of her voice obviously told him just how afraid she felt, because he petted her again, obviously not realizing this frightened her even more.
“Oh, don’t cry, love,” he said. “I hoped the wine would be enough. I didn’t have time to pick up a sedative. Shh, there now, it’s not going to hurt. I would never hurt you.”
No, she thought, just blow my brains out.
“There now, trust me, darling,” he said, taking a couple of steps back again, turning his back to the window. All she could see was his profile from the backlighting of the sunlight through the trees. She wished she’d been nicer to her poor mother before she left, but it was too late to do anything about that. Annabelle curled her fingers more tightly into the carpet. As Adyson said when she dropped to number two in the amateur rankings three years back: know when you’re beaten. “Now, just close your eyes, my dear. I wouldn’t want you to flinch and mess up my perfect aim.”
No, she certainly didn’t want that either. She glanced up at him. He waited patiently for her to close her eyes, so perhaps she could buy herself just a little more time by staring up at him, not closing them. It wouldn’t last forever, but maybe just long enough....
“Annabelle,” he said, gently. “Close your eyes.”
“Just a few more seconds, please,” she whispered. “Please, I want....”
He tensed slightly. His grip readjusted and she knew she ran out of time.
“Annabelle,” he said, sternly this time, no wait left in him. “Close your eyes. It’s time.”
She forcefully, painfully inhaled and closed her eyes. She’d seen him shooting before, and she knew a shooter timed with their breathing, with the beat of their heart. If she’d needed to shoot something in that moment, she wouldn’t have known when to pull the trigger, because her heart beat about two hundred beats a minute, and she could barely breathe.
Michael must not have suffered that problem, though, because moments later, she heard the gunshot, and she knew no more.