For some strange reason, Annabelle found herself the first one awake, as evidenced by the empty coffee pot. Perhaps, she told herself, Evelyn simply woke up late and decided to grab something on the way to work. It wasn’t totally unheard of.
Annabelle prepared some toast and a full pot of coffee, and decided she would eat in her room. She’d almost reached the staircase in the front entryway when she heard someone knock on the door. She froze, frowning. Who would call at this hour? Evelyn had a key if she forgot something. Unless she forgot her key, but she would call a servant. Even if the regular staff hadn’t arrived yet, they still had the three overnights on site.
Whoever it was knocked again, and she stuck the toast in her mouth so she could open the door. She pulled the toast back out again to greet Blake and Michael, who stood in uniform, both looking a bit tired, especially Michael. His eyes shone a dark, strange sort of wild, enhanced by the circles under his eyes. Even Blake, who usually showed little to no signs of lacking sleep, appeared unkempt and slightly droopy in the face. He hadn’t even gelled his hair yet.
“What brings you two out here so early?” she asked cheerfully. “Would you like some coffee? I’ve just brewed a pot.”
“No, Miss Benton,” Michael said solemnly, and she took a small step back, her bare feet feeling extra cold on the marble. She didn’t like it when he called her that. “There’s something I think your aunt will want to see. At the cabin.”
Annabelle looked from Michael to Blake and back to Michael. They stared at her like pallbearers at a funeral procession.
“What is it?” she asked nervously. Her fingers began to tremble, and she could see the coffee sloshing at the sides of the cup. “What’s happened? Does it have to do with Daddy?”
“It might,” Blake said gently. “It’s...it’s about Evelyn.”
She squished her toast a little in her hand, feeling the melting butter on her skin.
“What about her?”
Michael exhaled a heavy sigh and said, “She’s been found dead, Miss Benton. At your family’s cabin. Gunshot wound.”
Annabelle dropped her mug of coffee, and both men rushed forward as her knees started to give out. They sat her down on the stairs, both of them fanning her. A servant came out to find out what was wrong, and Blake asked her to fetch the family, all the family, including Aunt Rose. Annabelle felt as though the world moved in slow motion as the three overnight servants rushed around, waking the family, cleaning the mess she’d left on the marble with her shattered coffee cup.
Aunt Rose was the first person downstairs, although Annabelle could hear her mother’s screams of grief and pain from where she sat.
“Your sisters are with her,” Aunt Rose said gently. In the distortion of Annabelle’s world, her aunt’s face drooped on one side like a stroke victim, her eyes were almost red where they should be white, and the veins on her hand as she touched Annabelle’s shoulder popped so prominently they looked like they were straining to break out of her skin. “How do you feel?”
“A little bit butter... I mean, better, thank you, Auntie Rose,” Annabelle said softly. “Blake, tell one of the servants to bring out my XKR and I’ll go...go find some shoes. I can wear sandals to a crime scene, right?”
They all protested that she shouldn’t be driving, but Annabelle refused to listen. She went upstairs, pulled on a cardigan and some shoes, and hurried back down. If she’d stopped to look at herself in the mirror she might have been too frightened to function, and certainly too disturbed to drive. She just secured her gloves when she stepped out into the open air to find Aunt Rose standing beside the Jaguar looking nervous.
“They drove on ahead, then?” Annabelle asked.
“Yes, and if you don’t feel like driving—”
“I do,” Annabelle said firmly. “Let’s go up there. I meant to show you the cabin this weekend anyway.”
Aunt Rose kept glancing at Annabelle nervously the whole way up, but Annabelle felt strangely calm until she reached the parking area in front of the cabin. The gravel driveway was lined with police cars, and the house had tape all around it, people bustling around with plastic bags in gloved hands, and she felt slightly sick to her stomach.
With Aunt Rose leading the way, her veined hand on Annabelle’s arm to steady her, they entered to see Michael standing over what Annabelle knew must be her sister. She just focused on Evelyn’s shoes, not daring to look at her face.
“Single gunshot wound to the head,” Michael said, and he knelt beside the body. The shape of him looked angular and strange, like the compasses in math class all bent over on themselves and pointy at the ends. She wondered if his hair or his shoes were the pencil lead. “The coroner’s already come and gone, said he’ll complete the full autopsy when we’ve moved her, but we didn’t want to touch the crime scene until you came up to take a look.”
“You think the deaths might be related,” Aunt Rose said, sighing as she knelt down on Evelyn’s other side. “I must say, I think you’re probably right. Did you recover any bullets?”
“Went clean through,” Blake said softly. His eyes fixed on Annabelle, and she only knew this because she startled at how close his voice sounded, startled enough to look up at him and see his dark eyes watching her. They almost looked black in that moment. “The killer cleaned up thoroughly. We can’t find traces of anything. The bullet’s gone. No footprints, no tire tracks, it’s like nobody’s been here in weeks.”
“Well, that’s not true,” Aunt Rose said, “because I know Annabelle was up here.”
Annabelle and Michael met each other’s eyes for just a fraction of a second, and Annabelle looked back at her sister’s shoes.
“That’s what I mean,” Blake said. “This person obviously knew how to clean up. And what’s more, the shooter was someone she knew. Evelyn let herself in, but the door was locked when we found her, no signs of forced entry. Which means the person had a key, because hers is still on her. Either she let them in and they locked the door on their way out, or they let themselves in, killed her, and locked the door on the way out.”
“The security system was armed?” Annabelle asked.
“How many people with that kind of access, Annabelle?” Aunt Rose asked, looking at her expectantly.
The list was short, and Annabelle could feel her stomach twisting as she looked down at her sister’s shoes again. She didn’t need to lie. She didn’t. Not that it mattered, but she wouldn’t need to lie.
“Everyone in the family,” she recited. “Maybe four servants, Chloe Blackburn, and the police.”
“Chloe?” Aunt Rose asked.
“Yeah, she would sometimes meet Daddy up here for work on sensitive stuff away from the office,” Annabelle said with a shrug. “Like issues within the company he couldn’t put in writing. Sensitive hiring and firing and promotions and stuff like that.”
“Did she carry a key to the main house?” Michael asked, and Annabelle shook her head. “Well, then I doubt it’s her. Gwenllian Kerr has her key still?”
“Yes,” Annabelle said slowly. “Yes, it’s on her ring.”
Aunt Rose began to look around the room, examining angles and trying to decide where the killer fired.
“Excuse me for a moment,” Michael said. “Miss Benton, could I have a word with you in private?”
Annabelle nodded, her heart racing as they went up the hall to her bedroom and locked the door, moving to the far side of the room in case someone followed to listen in. Michael leaned forward, placing a tender kiss on her forehead.
“You all right, love?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” Annabelle admitted. “I just...don’t know how I feel right now.”
He wrapped his arms around her and gently rocked her back and forth.
“It’s going to be all right, darling,” he whispered, kissing the top of her head. “Everything’s going to be fine. I’m going to guarantee nothing happens to you, Annabelle. I’ll protect you from everything.”
She pulled back slightly, looking up at his sad brown eyes.
“D’you think my family’s all in danger? D’you think I’m going to be a target?”
“No, I don’t,” he said firmly. “No, really, I don’t think you’re in any danger at all, love. Think about it—your father was head of Benton Tech, and he’s dead. Your sister becomes head, and she’s dead in a matter of weeks, and they didn’t even bother trying to make it look like an accident, which means they’re sloppier, and we should be able to find them before they kill whoever’s the next head of Benton Tech.” He paused, glancing out the small window. “D’you know who that’s going to be?”
“I don’t,” Annabelle admitted. “Evelyn was very private with those sorts of things. Chloe might be able to tell you, though, so you can keep an eye out for whoever it is.”
He nodded, just watching her for a long moment before leaning in and pressing his lips to hers.
She was glad she hadn’t put on any makeup that morning, because returning to the crime scene with a bit of makeup rubbed off on his face seemed like a bad continuation of an already bad day. Because her face was clean, though, she pulled him closer, tasting his breath, feeling the comfort of his arms around her.
Michael became a source of comfort when her father died, and she’d often found herself wishing he’d been with her when she’d lost Julia, although he came not long after. How much loss she would be asked to bear she didn’t know, but she felt stronger with him.
Annabelle had never been the most astute or clever when it came to relationships. Her sister used to tease her that Prince Charming could ride up on a white horse and she would miss it because she was too busy watching a Lamborghini drive by. But some things were instinct, perfect and wonderful instinct that couldn’t be missed no matter how pretty the car going the other way, and Michael was one of those things.
She might be only twenty-two, but she’d never before felt like she wanted anything or anyone more, and when all of this ended, if he didn’t ask her to marry him, she’d ask him. Because this was love: comfort and strength and steadiness during the hard times, and beautiful affection and devotion during the good times, and Michael became all of that for her, the ups and downs and good and bad, and she could see nothing but more of the same in the future.
“I feel a little bit better now,” she sighed as she pulled away from the kiss, smiling up at him.
“I’m not, you little minx,” he teased. “It’s really too bad it’s so crowded out there, because I’d like to—”
His thought abruptly cut off as a sharp knock rattled the door.
“Annabelle?” Aunt Rose said. “Blake is going to take me to see the coroner. They’re taking the body there now. I want a quick chat with him.”
“That’s fine, Auntie.”
“And Lieutenant, could you tell me, how did you learn something happened up here?”
Michael bit his lip for a moment, holding in a laugh. Annabelle quirked a questioning eyebrow, but he ignored her and said, “Miss Blackburn called us because Evelyn Benton hadn’t come in for work and wasn’t answering her phone. Apparently that’s not like her, and she was very worried. Blake and I spent several hours this morning checking all probable places before we decided to check the cabin.”
“All right, I’ll call you for a ride when I’m done, Annabelle.”
“Right,” Annabelle said, hoping she didn’t sound too breathless as she wrapped her arms around Michael’s neck once more, pulling him in for another kiss.
They couldn’t hide out in her bedroom forever, though, as Michael had an investigation, so Annabelle waited while they gathered what little evidence they could find and Michael told the officers he would stay with her for a while until she felt well enough to drive again.
When they were alone, Michael led her out to the sofa and poured them each a glass of wine and pulled Annabelle onto his lap, wrapping his arms around her. She had wanted to go upstairs to be away from the stain and the chalk, but she didn’t fight or mention her hesitation. Her legs felt too unsteady for the staircase and this was the last thing she wanted to admit out loud.
“How d’you feel?” he asked gently, running his fingernails along the skin of her legs. “What’s on your mind?”
Annabelle took a long drink and shook her head, resting her hand on top of his hand.
“They’re not going to find your hairs on the rug or something?” she asked nervously.
“I doubt it,” he snorted. “I cleaned quite thoroughly when I was last here. You were still sleeping, and I tried to stay around as long as possible.” He kissed her temple. “But even if they do, they’ll assume it fell today, anyway. They know I was here, and you were here, and your Aunt Rose was here, so we’re likely not going to be considered in hair samples found, or fibers or anything like that.”
Annabelle carefully sipped her wine, glancing down at the outline they’d drawn around where her sister’s body had been, and the bloodstain on the carpet. How long until they could clean that? Or replace the carpet, perhaps, if the blood had sat too long. She shivered slightly, both repulsed and entranced by the bloodstain.
“Did the coroner give you a time of death?”
“Yeah, sometime between seven and ten last night,” Michael whispered. “D’you know what she planned for last night?”
“She told Aunt Rose she had a bit of business she needed to meet with someone about,” Annabelle said. “Don’t know why she came up here for that.”
“Unless it was Chloe,” Michael said thoughtfully. “I’ll ask her for an alibi, just in case. Could be she finished her meeting and came up here to work afterwards.”
Annabelle began drumming her fingers on the back of Michael’s hand. It felt good to be with him, to be near to him. It felt comforting and safe.
“It’s like everything I love is tainted by death now,” she whispered after draining her glass. “Cars, the mansion, the cabin.” She gave a hollow laugh. “Maybe I should move.” Her fingernails traced around the edge of his watch. “How do you feel about the Hamptons?”
“What?” she teased. “We own a place there. Mother won’t mind me living there full time. After this, she might move as well.” She frowned. “Actually, on second thought, it’s too small to share the Hamptons with my mother. Maybe I’ll buy a place in New York.”
“No space to drive.”
“Hmm.” She stood up from his lap. “More wine, love?”
“No, thank you.”
He watched her carefully as she poured her second glass, just to the right measurement, picking the glass up delicately by the stem.
“We don’t talk about it,” Michael said, “but I think, considering everything, I should probably ask you how you feel about Julia’s death right now. Do you...have any questions?”
Annabelle took a long drink of her wine to avoid answering.
One thing Michael confided in her when they first started dating was that he met Julia when he’d been working in Scotland, and he’d witnessed her accident. The coincidence shocked her at first, and Annabelle almost decided not to keep seeing him, but he explained how he’d moved to Julia’s hometown specifically to restart, hoping he could accomplish something positive for her memory, since he hadn’t been able to save her. He’d been disappointed when her parents moved and he hadn’t been able to meet them, but knowing Julia and Annabelle were close augmented the interest he already felt for Annabelle.
And after a while, she found it to be a blessing, to have someone who knew what loss felt like, what an impact it really left – someone who had seen Julia’s broken body. Adyson had already mourned and moved on. Blake stayed locked so tightly inside himself on the whole business, and he and Annabelle never managed to share well with each other. But with Michael, they never needed to say a word and it felt as though they truly understood one another.
“I don’t know,” she said slowly, sitting on his lap again. “I thought...I thought I was fine, and Daddy died. And it started to hurt again. Now this? I mean, I’m going to be fine, but it’s a lot to take at once.” Michael nodded, placing another kiss to her temple as she began fiddling with his watch. “How fast was she going?”
Annabelle shivered. There was a time when ninety miles an hour just felt like a challenge, a bit of fun on the straights, and a daring take on the right sort of curves. Ninety on a straight was slow, especially at night when no one else was around. Now she felt jumpy at seventy-five, and took corners at fifty or lower, always.
“Did she suffer?”
“No, the coroner said she died on impact, no pain at all.” He sighed, his breath tickling Annabelle’s neck. “I’d like to think she didn’t see it coming, didn’t have time to be afraid, so she died happy.”
Annabelle liked to think that, too, but she didn’t believe it. She didn’t think death could ever be totally painless, and if that meant fear tainted the final minutes, maybe that was a better sort of pain than physical suffering.
“Evelyn didn’t suffer either, if you wondered,” Michael said gently.
“Bullet to the brain, and the coroner said it was perfectly executed, probably by luck. Dead instantly, didn’t even need blood loss or anything like that.”
Annabelle latched and unlatched Michael’s watch as she listened to the soothing sound of his voice giving her words of partial comfort.
“Well, that’s more difficult to say,” he said nervously. “It’s possible he was unconscious quickly enough that he didn’t feel pain. Perhaps the initial pain of the blow. But he didn’t suffer. He would definitely have been unconscious as he died.”
Her fingers tensed subconsciously. She didn’t want her father to have suffered. He was always so careful, all her life, to shield her from everything. And the one time he needed her, the one time he needed to be protected, she was asleep. She did nothing. And she felt like she’d let him down terribly.
Michael knew her so well, he almost read her thoughts, and he touched her chin, turning her head gently to face him.
“Listen to me,” he said firmly. “You listen. There was nothing you could do, all right? None of this is your fault. If you’d been there, at any of them, you’d be dead as well, and if something happened to you....”
Annabelle threw her arms around his neck, closing her eyes and feeling tears escape, trickling down her cheeks, off her jaw, onto his uniform as he petted her hair.
She knew it wasn’t her fault. It couldn’t logically be her fault, and her rationality accepted this. But her emotions, the side of her that felt pain and guilt and all the illogical responses to grief told her she could have done something. She was a better driver than Julia, and maybe she could have corrected, even at ninety miles an hour. If she’d been awake maybe she would have heard something and saved her father before he died. And Evelyn...maybe if she and Michael went to the cabin that night instead of earlier in the week, they could have stopped the killer then as well. None of it was her fault, but she could have done something.
Especially with her father. The knowledge that he maybe just slipped in the shower in the middle of the night and died by accident, that such a great man could die such an ignoble and random death disgusted her and felt vastly unfair. But the knowledge that perhaps it hadn’t been an accident at all, that he’d really been killed and she’d slept through the whole thing caused her to feel physically sick to her stomach.
She didn’t save them, couldn’t save any of them, and what was the point in being smart or pretty or fast if you couldn’t fix anything with any of it? What good was all the money in the world if you couldn’t save your father? Yes, she liked possessing a trust, but she would give away every penny of it to bring her father back.
Michael held her as she cried herself to sleep and woke her an hour later, administering a Breathalyzer test before giving her back the keys to her Jaguar.
“Did you take these off me while I slept?”
“Of course,” he said, kissing her cheek. “But you’re clean. Sure you don’t want me to drive you and bring you back for the car when you’re feeling better?”
“M’fine, Michael,” she said, pulling on her gloves again. “I’ll probably see you later, anyway. You need to talk to Mother about the death?”
“Yes, and your aunt will be anxious to discuss our findings as well, I’m sure,” he sighed. He gave her a sad smile and kissed her gently, then more passionately, before closing the door of the Jag and watching her drive away.