Her stomach felt a little nauseous, so she poured herself a glass of milk and leaned against the kitchen sink drinking it.
Max walked in, took one look at her, and asked, “What’s wrong?”
Was it that obvious that she was irritated?
“Nothing’s wrong. Just wanted some milk.”
When her mother entered the kitchen, Ellie noticed she was dressed for a special occasion, wearing a white sleeveless sheath and heels. “Is that a new dress?” she asked.
“No, I’ve had it a couple of years. You just haven’t seen it.”
“It’s pretty,” she said. “You look nice, Mom.”
“Thank you, dear. Now, Ellie,” she said, “there’s something I want to discuss.”
Ellie finished her milk. Putting her glass in the sink, she said, “Oh God, here we go.”
“What did you say?”
“Whenever you start a sentence with ‘Now, Ellie,’ I know you’re going to tell me something I don’t want to hear.”
“Your sister Ava and her fiancé are coming over for dinner.”
“And I was right. I didn’t want to hear that.”
“They’re picking up Annie at the airport and should be here around six thirty.”
Ellie turned to Max. “You’ll love Annie. Growing up, she had the nickname Candy Annie because she was so sweet.”
Her father had come into the kitchen in time to hear Ellie’s remarks. He shook his head. “Until you went away,” he said. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow, then dropped into a chair to catch his breath before continuing. “Annie became withdrawn, and it took her a long time to recover, and that’s when she decided she wanted to do something in law enforcement when she grew up. She couldn’t understand why Patterson hadn’t been locked up for life. Frankly, neither could we.” He added, “She felt so helpless.”
Max nodded. Helpless. He could identify with Annie’s mindset. When he was a young boy, he’d felt the same way after he’d run away from foster parents.
“Annie’s still sweet,” Ellie insisted. “We text each other all the time. She’s still got a wicked sense of humor, too.”
“And Ava?” Max asked. “Did she have a nickname?”
He mother tried to stop Ellie from answering. “They’re twins, you know. Identical.”
“There are times I still can’t tell them apart,” her father exaggerated.
“I can,” Ellie said. “Ava’s eyes glow red in the dark.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” her mother muttered.
Her father decided to ignore the comment. “The repairman installed a window unit because he said the replacement air conditioner was missing a few parts. He’ll be back tomorrow to fix it and put in the new thermostat. I’m going to keep the window unit, though. I got a real deal on it.”
The doorbell rang, and her mother hurried to answer. She crossed back through the kitchen saying, “William, tell the tent people where they can set it up.”
Her father was slow to get up, and after the two of them had gone into the yard, Ellie said, “I’ll be right back.”
She ran into her parents’ bathroom and went through the medicines in the cabinet. Her father’s color was much better than it had been, but she was concerned about him. Stress could be a killer. She was looking for heart medicine but didn’t find any. The only prescribed medication she found was a bottle of sleeping pills. She read the label and unscrewed the cap. About half the pills were gone. She knew these were nothing to worry about, but she was troubled nonetheless.
“What were you doing?” Max asked when she returned. He was standing at the window in the living room looking out at the street.
“I was checking out the prescription bottles in the medicine cabinet to find out what they’re taking. If something was wrong with either one of them, I would never know. They wouldn’t tell me.”
“Did you find anything?”
“Sleeping pills for my dad,” she answered. “I think the anxiety I’ve caused him over the years—not to mention all the stress of Ava’s wedding—has taken its toll.”
“Are you going to tell me about Ava? I sense a little hostility.”
She laughed. “No wonder you’re an FBI agent. You’re so perceptive.”
“No reason for sarcasm.”
She crossed the room and stood beside him looking out at the street with her arms folded. “I’m here to attend Ava’s wedding because my mother insisted. Really insisted,” she stressed emphatically.
“She’s marrying John Noble, my ex-fiancé.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”
“John had only just asked me to marry him a few days before I brought him home to meet the family.”
“I see,” he said when she hesitated.
“Everyone wanted to make him feel at home . . . especially Ava.”
Max suspected where this was headed and waited to hear her tell him.
“The night after we arrived, I found him in bed with her.”
“Ah . . .”
Frowning, she said, “Ah, what?”
“Do you blame him for what happened, or do you just blame your sister?”
“Ava knew what she was doing.”
“And he didn’t?”
“Of course, he did,” she said. “But Ava and I always had a contentious relationship, and this was the last straw. I packed up and went back to St. Louis.”
“What had made it so contentious?” he asked, curious.
“When we were young and anything went wrong, Ava blamed me. She and Annie each had her own birthday party, and Ava accused me of ruining one of hers. In a way, I guess I did.”
“How did you ruin it?”
“I was beaten and unconscious,” she said. “And my parents had to go to the hospital.”
“That was when you were taken away from Winston Falls, wasn’t it?”
“No, not that time.”
“Jeez, Ellie, how many times did Patterson send you to the hospital? The court records didn’t tell that.”
“Just a couple.”
She tried to act blasé about it, but he knew talking about the bastard made her anxious. He could hear it in her voice.
“Is it difficult to be here, even though it’s just for a couple of days?”
She didn’t see any reason to lie. “I get this stone in the pit of my stomach, and it doesn’t go away until I’m out of here, all because of him. I used to think it was odd that he didn’t try to find me.”
“How do you know he didn’t?”
“I don’t think it would have been all that difficult to find out where I was. I took the Wheatley name for a long time, but I went back to my name for my M.D. A psychiatrist suggested to me that Patterson’s obsession was somehow tied to Winston Falls.”
“Maybe,” he allowed, though he wasn’t convinced.
“The doctor said that part of Patterson’s obsession or fantasy was that he had to kill me here. It’s one theory,” she added with a shrug.
Max had another theory. A man with a violent obsession would stop at nothing to get his victim, and the only reason he hadn’t killed Ellie was because he couldn’t find her. From what he’d read in the file, he also knew that Patterson would never stop until he was locked away for life.
“I’d rather not talk about him anymore.”
“Okay, tell me about this Noble guy. Did you love him?”
“He looked good on paper.”
Max laughed. “In other words, no,” he said. “What exactly does looking good on paper mean?”
“John’s a dermatologist, so there’s very little chance of danger in his job. That made him safe.”
And God knows, I’d love to find out what it’s like to feel safe
, she thought to herself.
“We were both residents, so we had the hospital and medicine in common.”
“He was extremely polite and easygoing.”
Max noticed she hadn’t mentioned an emotional or physical connection. “You wouldn’t have married him.”
“No, I wouldn’t have,” she admitted. “I realized after that fiasco that I can’t marry anyone. My life’s too unpredictable.”
“And it wouldn’t be safe for the man you married?”
Had he read her thoughts? “Yes, that’s right. It wouldn’t be.”
“You’re letting that bastard, Patterson, continue to run your life.”
She didn’t disagree. “Aren’t you going to ask me if I slept with John?”
“No,” he replied. “I already know you didn’t.”
She looked up at him. “How could you know?”
He didn’t say what he was thinking, that any man who had gone to bed with Ellie would never want or need any other woman. Instead, he said, “I just know.”
ridezilla arrived at the house at seven o’clock with her fiancé and her sister.
Max watched from the window as John carried Annie’s suitcase and walked between the two striking women. The twins were identical, all right. Both were of medium height and had long blond hair a shade darker than Ellie’s, and delicate features. In Max’s opinion, the sisters were very pretty, but in no way could they compete with Ellie’s beauty.
John Noble was something else. He looked as though he should be working on Wall Street or maybe as a mannequin in a department store window. He was tall, thin, and neatly dressed in a starched, light blue shirt and pressed khakis. Not a hair was out of place. There was something odd about him, though. Max couldn’t figure out what it was until John got closer to the house. He realized then that John’s forehead didn’t move when he smiled. It was as though his skin had been frozen. Botox? Surely not.
Ellie came up behind Max. “The bad seed’s the one on the left,” she whispered.
He tried not to smile. “Try to get along,” he whispered back.
“You sound like my mother.”
“Just do it, sweetheart. Play nice.”
Her father rushed past them and opened the front door.
Annie spotted Ellie. “I didn’t think you would make it,” she cried out. “I’m so happy you’re here.”
The sisters were talking a mile a minute as they hugged each other. Though they were speaking at the same time, they still seemed to understand what the other was saying.
Ava stood behind Annie, waiting. She clutched a notebook in her arms, and Max noticed she acted irritated that she was having to wait for Ellie’s attention. When it was her turn, she gave Ellie an air kiss on her cheek.
“I’m glad you decided to behave like an adult and come home for the wedding,” Ava said. She lowered her voice. “And, by the way, you are in the wedding.”
“No, I’m not,” Ellie replied.
She plastered a smile on her face and introduced Max to her sisters. She didn’t say anything negative about Ava, though there were a few choice words she would have liked to use. Then she introduced John.
He had been standing in the door with his head down. When she said his name, he looked up, but he didn’t look at Ellie. His face was red, and his eyes darted back and forth as though they were afraid to meet hers. He nervously stepped forward and shook Max’s hand, and the room fell silent. Finally, he glanced up at Ellie and said, “Congratulations.”
“Congratulations for what?” she asked.
“The Chapman Award.”
“The hospital won the Chapman?”
“No, you did.”
She shook her head. “You must be mistaken, John. I would know if I’d won it.”
“Oh, Dr. Westfield probably wants to tell you himself,” he said. His embarrassment turned his complexion an even deeper shade of red. “I guess I ruined his surprise.”
“How did you find out about this?” she asked, still believing he’d made a mistake.
“I was talking to Westfield’s assistant about some papers I still hadn’t received for the hospital here, and she mentioned the news to me. Everyone at St. Vincent’s is so excited. It’s such a huge honor, and it means they’ll get additional grant money and other funding. You should be hearing from Westfield anytime now. You’re going back there, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I’m not signing a contract, though. I promised Westfield I’d help out for a little while when they need me.”
“You did win it, Ellie,” he assured her.
Now that the initial awkward moments were out of the way, Ava had lost interest in the conversation and had gone into the kitchen to talk to her mother.
“What’s a Chapman?” Annie asked.
John answered. “It’s a prestigious award given for outstanding achievement in the field of medicine. This year it was awarded to Ellie and, therefore, to her department, too. It’s a coveted prize,” John stressed, “because it’s so rarely given. The last Chapman Award was presented eleven years ago to a senior resident and his department in Memphis.”
“Will there be a presentation?” Annie asked. “And will Ellie get a medal or something?”
John smiled at Annie, glad to have somewhere else to direct his attention. “She’ll get a little more than a medal. The award comes with a large cash prize. Half goes to the department and half to Ellie. She won’t even have to pay taxes. That’s included in the award.”
“That would certainly help with your loans, wouldn’t it?” Annie said.
Ellie was still incredulous. “If I had won it, Dr. Westfield surely would have called me by now.”
Her father kissed Ellie’s forehead. “Even if you didn’t win it, you know your mother and I are very proud of you, don’t you? We may not be able to brag about you to the relatives and our friends the way we’d like, but you know how we feel.”
“Yes, Daddy, I do.”
“My chicken’s going to be all dried up if we don’t eat soon,” her mother called. “John, would you mind taking Annie’s suitcase upstairs to the lavender room? Annie, fill the water glasses please.”
Max’s cell phone rang. Ben was calling. He excused himself and headed to the office again for privacy. He was crossing the hallway when he heard Ava ask Ellie whether she had brought a long black dress to wear in the wedding, or whether she needed to buy one. Without breaking stride, Max turned around, grabbed Ellie’s hand, and pulled her with him into the office.
Since he was on the phone, Ellie waited to explode, but it took work. She wanted to grab Ava by the shoulders and shake some of the smug attitude out of her. Annie passed by the door saying she was going upstairs to get something out of her suitcase, and a minute later Ellie heard her laughing. She knew why. Annie had seen the color on the walls of her room. For some reason her sister’s laughter took the edge off Ellie’s anger. She had promised her mother she would try to get along with Ava, and by all that was holy, that was exactly what she was going to do. She would not allow her sister to provoke her.