What would you do if your daughter disappeared?
What would you do if you believed your stepson killed her?
Fifteen-year-old Caitlin Whittington, last seen waiting for a ride home from school, is the second girl in Paradise Falls to disappear in five months. Fears grow that she won’t be the last as the town begins to suspect a serial killer might be loose.
With her daughter’s disappearance, Grace Whittington makes some surprising and unsettling discoveries about her stepson, Adam. When she uncovers information that seems to implicate him, the fault lines of a happily blended family crack wide open.
The case falls to Detective Rayna Godwin, who is hampered by memories of her own murdered daughter and the suspicion that there is more to the string of unsolved disappearances than meets the eye. When her ex-lover, FBI agent Jack Cody, is called in against Rayna’s wishes, her job becomes even more difficult.
And Adam, scared and stung by the distrust of those closest to him, is afraid to speak the truth.
Paradise Falls is the riveting and provocative tale of a family torn apart by divided loyalties and a dedicated detective who meets her worst fears head on. The razor sharp twists and turns will hold readers captive until its final, explosive conclusion.
Caitlin Whittington hunched forward under the weight of her backpack and pulled her jacket tight across her chest. The wind whipped strands of chestnut brown hair across her face, stinging her eyes and catching in her mouth. The warmth her body had generated during volleyball practice was long gone. She shivered and checked her watch.
Her dad was late. No surprise there, he was always late. Then he'd spend twenty minutes making excuses, which was really just a way of reminding her how busy and important he was.
It wasn't like she actually wanted to spend the weekend with him, anyway. It was boring at his place, away from her friends, from her home, from everything that was hers. He never seemed particularly happy to see her either. Especially now that Starr had moved in and all she wanted to talk about was their upcoming wedding.
Caitlin had tried explaining this to her mom but she must not have done a very good job because her mom had just shaken her head sadly and said, "Really, Caitlin, is a weekend now and then really so much to ask? He's your father, after all."
And Caitlin knew that her mom and Carl liked having the time to themselves. She'd noticed that her visits to her father's always coincided with the weekends Adam and Lucy, Carl's kids, were with their mother. With no teenagers around, her mom and Carl would have the house to themselves.
Caitlin checked her watch again just as Traci Redding walked past, one hand holding a cigarette, fingers of the other looped through Leo Johnson's rear belt loop. Traci waved with the hand holding the cigarette.
"Hey, Cate. Thanks for the study help in Algebra. I got a C-plus on the test." Traci sounded pleased, although Caitlin thought a C-plus was nothing to get excited about.
"Good for you," she called back. "I bet next time you'll do even better."
Caitlin's words were drowned out by the sudden, deafening beat of rap music emanating from a car that screeched to a halt in the student parking lot. Traci and Leo jogged toward it and climbed in.
Traci was one of the divas, a group of girls Caitlin had once held in disdain. But that was before she got to know them. She and Fern had started calling them divas behind their backs, making private jokes about them, none really funny even though once they'd laughed so hard that Fern wet her pants and had to pretend she'd gotten her period so she could go home and change. Then at the end of last year Fern's dad got transferred, the family moved clear across the country to New York, and Caitlin somehow found herself dating Ty Cross, who everyone said had the cutest butt in the whole school. All of a sudden, the divas were Caitlin's new best friends.
And now . . . well, Caitlin wasn't sure what was going to happen. What she wanted to have happen even. Sometimes Caitlin wasn't so sure she even knew who she was anymore.
A gust of wind stirred the dust and litter at her feet. Caitlin was growing impatient. It was practically night already, the campus almost deserted. She pulled out her cell phone to call her dad and saw that the battery was dead. Shit. He couldn't have reached her if he'd tried.
Caitlin was freezing. One of the wettest winters on record and it showed no signs of letting up, even though it was the middle of March and the buds on the crabapple trees were ready to burst. At least today it wasn't raining. She could walk home and call her dad from there.
As she headed for the football field and the shortcut along the river to her house, she saw Lucy sitting on the wall by the flagpole, probably waiting for her mother. No way Caitlin would ask Mimi for a ride, although the thought of braving the cold for three-quarters of a mile was almost enough to tempt her. Lucy was okay, even as a stepsister, but her mom was something else. Caitlin had no trouble understanding why Carl had divorced her.
Ducking her head against the relentless cold, Caitlin skirted the flagpole and headed home.
How was it, Grace wondered, that life's pivotal moments could sneak right by and you wouldn't blink an eye. Looking back, they might flash in neon, but right then, when destiny was making a hairpin turn, you were usually thinking of something else.
Caitlin, for example. Grace's love for her daughter was so all-encompassing it sometimes hurt, as if Grace's heart wasn't big enough to hold it. But motherhood, decidedly the most momentous change in Grace's entire life, had begun with a late period she'd passed off as a side effect of the flu—even though, as a nineteen-year-old sleeping with a guy who clearly had no interest in commitment, she shouldn't have been so naive. The fact that she might be pregnant hadn't crossed her mind.
By the time Caitlin was born, Jake had stepped up to the plate, as he was fond of putting it, ignoring altogether the fact that he'd stepped away six years later. When he moved out—another pivotal moment—he'd been absent so long in spirit that Grace barely noticed he was gone.
And then Carl. Who would have thought the careless act of spilling her latte onto the lap of a stranger three and a half years ago would have opened the door to such happiness? Grace couldn't imagine her life without him.
Now, as the waiter brought their salads and refilled their wine glasses, she smiled across the elegantly set table at the kind and boyishly handsome man who was her husband, and wondered how she'd gotten so lucky.
Carl reached for her hand. "What are you thinking?"
"That we don't do this sort of thing often enough."
He laughed and the corners of his hazel eyes crinkled. Grace loved that about Carl, the way he laughed easily and with genuine pleasure. When he was angry or hurt, those emotions played out on his face with equal candor, which further endeared him to Grace. There was nothing phony about Carl. No posturing or guile or manipulative innuendo.
"That's what makes weekends away such a treat," he said. "If we made a habit of it, they wouldn't be as special."
"You always put a good spin on things, don't you?"
Carl was a glass-half-full kind of guy. His attitude was such a change from Jake's that it had taken Grace awhile to get used to it.
The flicker of candlelight against the white tablecloth made Grace think of Caitlin's favorite childhood book with its illustrations of fairies dancing under a full moon. Grace remembered how the magic of the story had been a tonic for the bleakness she'd felt about her own life at the time.
"There you go, lost in dreamland again," Carl said.
"Sorry." Grace sipped her wine. "Do you want to get an early start tomorrow or sleep in?" They were planning a leisurely bike ride along a scenic, back-road route that had been written up in Sunset Magazine not long ago.
Carl grinned. "Depends on whether or not you wear me out tonight."
"I didn't think that was possible," she tossed back.
"Is that a challenge?"
Grace's cell phone chimed in her purse. She wanted to ignore it but was worried it might be Caitlin. "Sorry," she said, slipping her hand from Carl's to retrieve the phone.
She glanced at the readout. "It's Jake." Annoyed at her ex for intruding on their evening, she wondered if he'd timed the call out of some petty sense of being burdened with their daughter for the weekend.
Carl sighed. "You'd better answer it."
Grace hit receive. "Hi," she said softly, so as not to disturb the other diners. "I'm in a restaurant so I can't really talk."
"Where's Caitlin?" Jake asked without prelude.
"Isn't she with you?"
"What does that mean? Either she is or she isn't."
He sighed. "I was tied up in a meeting so Starr went to pick her up after volleyball practice."
"Then she must be with Starr." Grace glanced at Carl, whose set jaw and narrowed eyes betrayed a sense of irritation she knew he would never admit.
"Starr had car trouble," Jake continued. "By the time she got to the school, Caitlin was nowhere to be seen."
"Have you tried Caitlin's cell?" Grace felt the first tingle of alarm.
"She's not answering. I was hoping maybe you'd know where she is."
Grace and Carl were two hours away at a bed and breakfast on the Oregon coast. Why did Jake think she'd know where Caitlin was? "What about the house?" she asked with growing concern. "Have you called there?"
"No answer. And the inside is dark. Starr drove over there to check." Jake's tone was clipped. "I'm going to be really pissed if this is her idea of sticking it to me."
"Why would you even think such a thing? You know Caitlin isn't like that."
He ignored the question. "She's probably gone off with some friends. Wasn't there some boy she was involved with?"
"Ty? That's over."
"Whatever. Are you sure she understood I was going to meet her at the school?"
"Absolutely. We talked about it this morning. Five-thirty, when volleyball practice got out. She was going to wait for you at the flagpole on the oval." Grace hesitated. "How late was Starr?"
"Not that late. Forty minutes maybe."
"Forty minutes!" Grace was appalled. How could Starr have been so irresponsible?
"Why don't you call a couple of Caitlin's friends," Jake said. "See if they know where she is. I can't expect Starr to hang around Paradise Falls all night."
After the divorce, Jake had changed jobs and relocated fifty minutes away to Portland, which in Grace's mind was a foolish move for a man with a child. "Where are you now?" she asked.
"I'm at home. But I don't know who her friends are or how to reach them." Jake's voice became softer. "I feel bad about bothering you on a weekend away, but I'm kind of stuck. I don't know what else to do."
"No, I'm glad you called." Alarm had swelled to panic. Her chest felt tight. Grace had to remind herself to breathe. "I'll see what I can find out and get back to you."
It wasn't like Caitlin to go off without telling anyone. Even if she'd gone to a friend's house when Starr hadn't shown up, she'd have called to let them know where she was. Her daughter was resourceful and responsible. Mature beyond her fifteen years. Grace was sometimes tempted to shake her and tell her to loosen up. Have some fun before she grew up and stepped into the adult world for real.
"What is it?" Carl asked, sounding worried. "Has something happened to Caitlin?"
Grace bit her lip. It had to be a misunderstanding. They'd all get a good laugh about it later. "Caitlin wasn't at school when Starr arrived to pick her up. I need to call some of her friends." The restaurant was one you had to make reservations for weeks in advance. They'd both been looking forward to this dinner for a long time. "I'm sorry," Grace said. "I'll just be a minute."
Carl reached a hand across the table to touch her arm. His amber-flecked eyes probed hers. "Can I help?"
She shook her head, trying to keep it light. "Just save me some wine."
* * *
Grace stepped outside to make her calls. She didn't know every one of Caitlin's friends, and she didn't have the phone numbers of all she did know. But she managed to reach three girls, and through them got the numbers of two more.
No one had seen Caitlin since that afternoon.
Grace's hand was shaking by the time she called Jake back. "I think you'd better notify the police," she told him.
"Don't you think that's a little premature?"
Grace couldn't believe her ears. "Do you?"
"It's just that I hate to make a scene for no reason."
"A missing daughter isn't reason enough?"
To his credit, Jake relented. "Okay, if you think that's the way to go."
"We'll be home as soon as we can. Probably a couple of hours." She imagined Carl's face when she told him they had to leave. He'd be worried, but he'd also be disappointed, as she was, that their weekend had been cut short. Carl was wonderful to Caitlin, but Grace knew there had to be times he resented her. It bothered him that he lived with Grace's daughter twenty-four-seven, and saw his own children not even half that often. If it turned out Caitlin had simply gone off without telling them, there'd be hell to pay.
"I'll meet you at your place," Jake said. "Call me when you're close to home."
© Jonnie Jacobs. Web site by interbridge.