The bored driver waited for her at baggage claim, placard in hand as he scanned the harried travelers. There was her name in big bold lettering: Ava North.
She was almost embarrassed to wave him over. It wasn’t like she’d been traveling for hours or needed assistance getting from Point A to Point B. The flight from Houston to San Antonio had taken all of fifty minutes, less time than the commute from her apartment to the airport.
Ava could have easily headed west on I-10 in her own vehicle, but Blair Redding, the former college classmate who had put together this ill-advised gathering, had insisted on arranging all the transportation. No doubt with the intent of making it harder to leave before the week was up. Ava wouldn’t be at all surprised if she and the other guests were asked to relinquish their cell phones once they arrived at the destination. Blair had always been that much of a control freak.
Steeling herself for the coming days, Ava put up her hand to attract the young man’s attention. She didn’t like vacations in general and reunions in particular. Spending time at a remote ranch with the people she’d left behind years ago was a version of hell she would have preferred to avoid, yet here she was. An uncharacteristic outburst in district court had not only jeopardized what should have been a slam-dunk case, but also her five-year career as an assistant D.A. The judge had threatened to hold her in contempt and her superior had promised a suspension if she didn’t make herself scarce for a few days.
“You’re exhausted,” he’d said, not without sympathy. “The caseload we get in this office wears us all down eventually and you do yourself no favors with the hours you keep. How long has it been since you put in for a personal day, let alone a real vacation? Go,” he’d insisted, when she tried to formulate a passable defense. “Get out of my sight before I’m forced to do something drastic.”
Ava had dragged herself home where she intended to drink and fume for the rest of the day. But idleness, her mother always said, was Ava’s worst enemy, followed closely by the unholy trinity of overreaction, righteous indignation and self-destruction. No matter how appealing the thought of a good wallow, Ava knew a week of brooding in her apartment would lead to nowhere good. So she’d dug the invitation out of the trash and RSVP’d at the last minute. Then she’d packed a bag and headed for the airport that same afternoon without allowing herself time to reconsider.
The man with the placard gave her a perfunctory smile as he picked up her suitcase. “This is it? Just the one?”
“That’s it. I’m Ava, by the way.”
“Have the others arrived yet, Noah?”
“Two flew in over the weekend. They came with a lot of baggage,” he felt compelled to add.
Ava wondered if she was to take his observation literally or figuratively.
“Do you remember their names?”
“Jane got in on Saturday. The redhead came on Sunday. I don’t remember her name, but I remember her,” he said with a grin.
No man alive ever forgot Celeste Matthews. “What about Blair? I assume she’s already at the ranch.”
“Since last week,” he confirmed with a nod. “Her husband is arriving today.”
So they were all there, Ava thought with a shiver. With the exception of Lily, of course. Lily Callen had been the group’s first tragedy, a horrifying suicide on graduation weekend that had left everyone stunned. The days following her jump from a hotel rooftop had passed in a nightmarish blur of police interrogations and funeral preparations. Afterwards, the friends had parted in a flurry of tearful goodbyes and silent recriminations. Ava had fled to the isolation of her family’s beach house for the summer. Blair had gotten married. Celeste had backpacked through Europe with a guy she barely knew before settling down in New Orleans with another. Jane had moved to California.
And Dylan Burkhart, the love of Ava’s life, had disappeared off the face of the earth.
Funny how his desertion still niggled at times, mostly when she was already feeling blue or vulnerable. No reason why it should, of course. After all, she was the one who had ended their relationship. She was the one who had sent him away. Told him in no uncertain terms that it was over and she didn’t want to see him anymore. She’d just never considered that he would take her at her word.
No matter. Some things weren’t meant to be and Ava had no regrets. She was happy enough with her chosen path, but her time in the D.A.’s office had changed her. Not that her physical appearance was so different. Same brown hair. Same green eyes. But she’d become hardened and world-weary. A cynic where she’d once been a romantic.
Such was the life of a prosecutor, she thought with an inward shrug.
She wondered how Blair had coerced the others into coming, especially Jane. She’d been the first to lose touch. Ava hadn’t seen or heard from Jane Sandoval since the day she’d driven her to the airport. That strange goodbye had lingered with Ava all summer long, but then law school had consumed her time and attention and she’d eventually moved on, too.
Over the years, she’d heard from the others sporadically. Celeste still lived in New Orleans and Blair was in Austin. For a while, the three of them had made an effort to get together, but their visits had been awkward and unpleasant. The events surrounding Lily’s death had eroded their friendship and Ava was only too happy to put those days behind her. She rarely thought of any of them anymore. Even Dylan was little more than a passing memory. Or so she told herself.
“Have you ever been to Whispering Springs?” The driver gave her a sidelong glance as he stored her bag in the back of the SUV.
“A few times in college. A group of us used to go out there to rock climb. Spooky place.”
“You’re a climber?”
“Not me, no. I have a thing about heights. I like to hike, though, so long as the trail doesn’t get too vertical.”
“You’ll find plenty of easy trails around the ranch,” he assured her. “How long has it been since you were there?”
“At least ten years.”
“You won’t recognize it now. The owners have completely restored the property. I thought they were crazy when they first came in with a boatload of cash and a scheme to turn a rundown old ranch into a retreat, but the place has been booked solid since they opened seven years ago.”
“I just remember how isolated it was. And the springs really did seem to whisper, especially at night.” An unexpected chill seeped in as Ava thought back to those weekend excursions. Had their first trip to Whispering Springs been the start of her feelings for Dylan? Or had she been secretly in love with him for years, hiding it from herself and the others because he was taken?
“It’s a natural phenomenon,” Noah was saying.
“The whispering. It has something to do with the rock formations.”
“Oh, I see. No ghosts, then,” she teased.
“I didn’t say that.” A shadow flickered across his face as he closed her door and then turned to climb behind the wheel.
“What did you mean by that?” Ava asked curiously as he started the car and merged with the airport traffic.
He shrugged. “Nothing important. Just shooting the breeze.”
“Really? Because I get the feeling I said something that disturbed you.” She caught his eye in the rearview mirror. “Did I?”
“Your mention of ghosts reminded me of an old story. An urban legend, I guess you’d call it. I hadn’t thought about it in a long time.”
“I like urban legends,” Ava said. “Why don’t you entertain me while we drive?” She settled back against the seat and tried to relax, but as their gazes connected again in the mirror, she felt another inexplicable shiver along her spine.
“There was a girl once, a college kid that worked at the ranch when it first opened. One evening after her shift, she went out to walk the trails and never came back. The cops were called in and a search party formed, but they didn’t find so much as a footprint. It was like she vanished into thin air.”
“Wait a minute,” Ava said with a frown. “I think I remember reading something about that disappearance. It happened while I was still in law school. The police suspected the boyfriend, but they could never find the body.”
“That was just an easy explanation to avoid a lot of bad publicity for the new retreat.”
“And I thought I was cynical,” Ava muttered. “What do you think happened to her?”
“Beats me, but no one who knew her bought that story. Her boyfriend had an airtight alibi. The police couldn’t pin it on him no matter how hard they tried.”
“Doesn’t mean he didn’t have something to do with it,” Ava said.
“He wasn’t even in the area. And if she ran away like some folks thought, she would have told her friends or at least left a note. A person doesn’t just walk out the door and disappear off the face of the earth.”
“Sometimes they do.” Ava couldn’t help thinking about Dylan. “Did you know her?”
“Before my time,” he said, but with an edge in his voice that made Ava wonder. “Anyway, to circle back to the urban legend part, when the wind blows down through the canyon, people claim they can hear her scream.”
“Have you heard her?”
“Me? No. But I don’t wander too far off the beaten path after dark. The terrain is deceptively rugged even for those of us who grew up around there. Don’t go out alone,” he advised. “Travel in a group or hire a guide. If you prefer solitude, then stick to the trails close to the house.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”
They both fell silent after that. Ava leaned her head against the back of the seat and watched the passing scenery. Traffic thinned as they left the city and the road wound through the countryside like a twisted gray ribbon. After a while, the fenced meadows gave way to a breathtaking vista of ridges and valleys in earthy hues of slate, ocher and moss.
Ava felt unaccountably anxious. She wanted to blame her disquiet on Noah’s story or even the mess she’d left behind in Houston. Deep down, she knew better. She hadn’t thought through this trip. Until now, she hadn’t allowed herself to dwell on the consequences of facing her former friends and all their old demons.
She closed her eyes and tried to block out the foreboding. The road noise lulled her and the next thing she knew, the car had pulled to a stop. She sat up abruptly. “Are we there?”
“Ten miles out,” Noah told her. “I need to gas up. Hope you don’t mind.”
“No, of course, not. Where are we, exactly?”
“Lawton. It’s the nearest town to the ranch. Not much to see, but you’re welcome to get out and stretch your legs if you want. I’ll come find you when I’m done.”
“Thanks. I wouldn’t mind a stroll.” Ava got out of the car and stretched, then set out in the direction she vaguely remembered as downtown. She passed a couple of eateries, a cluttered antique shop, the post office, a hardware store and a handful of other businesses lined up along the main drag. There was no picturesque town square, no quaint gazebo or clock tower to attract passersby. The place had seen better days, but there was charm to the dusty windows and peeling paint. A stubborn resistance to the march of time that Ava found comforting.
At the edge of town, the cracked sidewalk gave way to a dirt footpath that disappeared into a cedar thicket. The sun beat down warm on her shoulders as she drank in the fresh air. The sky was very blue and mostly cloudless, but a shadow on the horizon warned of rain.
She stood for another moment enjoying the woodsy spice of the evergreens and the distant gurgle of a creek fed by underground springs. Then she turned to retrace her steps to the gas station. She hadn’t encountered a single soul on her short excursion, although she’d glimpsed a handful of patrons and shopkeepers through plate glass windows. Enough to know she was hardly alone and yet the oddest sensation of isolation beset her. She wanted to hurry back as fast as she could to the car, but instead she halted and scanned her surroundings, searching for the reason for her sudden unease.
He stood on the opposite side of the street, sheltered beneath an old tin awning so that at first Ava could detect little more than a tall, lean silhouette. She told herself not to stare, move on, nothing to see here.
But she remained rooted to the spot, her gaze fixed on the stranger. As her eyes adjusted to the shade, she could make out his clothing and features. He had on jeans, boots and a plaid shirt common to the area, but Ava didn’t think him a local. There was something about the way he carried himself, about the slight tilt of his head that struck a chord. A memory.
It couldn’t be, she thought in near panic. Not after all this time. She was seeing things. A mirage, a dream, a trick of light and shadow. Why, after all these years, would Dylan Burkhart turn up in Lawton, Texas, of all places?
She resisted the urge to cross the street for a closer look and the even greater desire to flee in the opposite direction. Instead, she skimmed her surroundings yet again, testing her perception. She wasn’t dreaming or imagining things. She was fully cognizant.
But when she glanced across the street, the silhouette had vanished.