A twig snapped.
Leah Gray whirled. A canopy of tree branches overhead blocked most of the sun, but a few beams of light snuck through. It dappled the walkway through the woods with odd shapes. She peered into the thick brush. No one was there. Still, the hair on the back of her neck rose and goosebumps broke out across her bare arms.
It felt like she was being watched. She’d had that feeling a lot recently.
“Leah.” Cassie Miles, her best friend, stood a short distance away on the trail. Her blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail and she’d dressed for the hike in a T-shirt and shorts. “Everything okay?”
The sound of a child’s laughter peeled through the woods, followed by slamming doors. Knoxville Nature Park was a popular place with families and hikers. Leah swallowed, the sensation of being watched disappearing in the blink of an eye, leaving her feeling foolish. A flush crept into her cheeks.
“Fine.” Leah rolled her shoulders, shaking off the lingering ominous sensation. “I must’ve heard a squirrel or something. Thank goodness we didn’t bring the dogs. Jax would run from here to the other side of the lake, investigating every creature in the area.”
Cassie laughed. Jax was Leah’s dog. The Lab-mix was fun-loving and goofy, with boundless energy and a love of water. Normally, Leah didn’t mind bringing him to the park for a stroll around the lake, but today wasn’t a normal day. Her hand tightened on the wreath of flowers as pain slashed her heart.
No, nothing about today was normal. They’d come to honor a fallen friend. A war hero.
Cassie looped her arm through Leah’s. They fell into step beside each other, strolling down the worn path toward the lake. The water sparkled in the sunlight, glinting just beyond the trees. A butterfly flitted from a set of wildflowers. Sweat beaded on Leah’s brow, aggravated by the oppressive humid air. Texas had many admirable qualities, but summer wasn’t one of them.
“Thanks for coming with me this afternoon.” Leah adjusted her hold on the wreath. It was covered in flowers and designed to float on the water. “Was Nathan bothered when I said it should just be the two of us?”
Nathan was Cassie’s husband. Leah liked him tremendously, but this…this was personal.
“Of course not.” Cassie waved a fly away from her face. “Nathan offered to come as a show of support, but it makes sense for you and I to do this alone. We grew up with William.”
The four of them—William and his twin sister, Kaylee, Cassie, and Leah—had been inseparable in junior high and high school. All of them had come from troubled families. The dysfunction bonded them together in a way that’d been fundamental. After graduation, William joined the army. He died last year during deployment.
Cassie sighed. “I wish Kaylee were here with us.”
“So do I.” William’s twin sister had disappeared nine months ago, shortly after her brother’s death. Leah ducked under a low-hanging branch. “I spoke to the detective in charge of Kaylee’s case. He hasn’t had any new leads. Probably because he’s not doing a thing to find her.”
Leah tried to keep the bitterness out of her voice, but it was impossible. The Medina County Sheriff's Department didn’t consider Kaylee’s disappearance to be a high priority. The detective in charge believed Kaylee had simply left town, a notion Leah adamantly disagreed with.
She feared something terrible had happened to Kaylee.
Leah hounded the sheriff’s department with phone calls and in-person visits, attempting to keep the case alive and at the forefront of their minds. To no avail. Unfortunately, in this case, the squeaky wheel didn’t always get the grease.
“I drove past the billboard you created on my way out of town yesterday,” Cassie said. “It looks great.”
“Thanks.” Desperate to get some new leads on Kaylee’s case, Leah rented space on a billboard near the freeway. It had a photo of Kaylee along with a phone number and a reward amount for any information that brought resolution to the case. “There’s a private company running the tip line. Hopefully, something will come of it.”
She stepped over a fallen log. This path wasn’t used often, because the park rangers didn’t clear it regularly. But it led to the most beautiful place on the lake. William’s secret fishing spot. Last year, they’d spread his ashes here, as he requested. It seemed a fitting spot to lay the wreath as well.
The trees parted, and the lake appeared. The sun hovered on the horizon, painting the sky with pale yellows, oranges, and soft blues. Clouds dotting the sky were reflected in the water. Boats floated in the distance, too far away to destroy the tranquility or disturb the herons searching for their dinner in the weeds.
Leah sighed with appreciation. “Every time I come out here, I’m reminded why William loved this spot so much.”
Cassie nodded. “I know. It’s gorgeous.” Her lips curved into a smile. “Remember that time you caught a catfish? You cried and insisted he put it back into the water.”
She chuckled. “William was so mad. It was a huge catfish. I never fished with bait again after that.” Memories pushed at the edges of her mind. William’s laugh had been boisterous and wild, his grin infectious, and his humor razor-sharp. Their relationship had never been romantic. It was more like a brother and sister. His death, and the disappearance of Kaylee, tore at Leah. Hot tears filmed her eyes. She blinked rapidly to clear her vision before shoving her glasses higher on her nose. “I miss him. I miss them both.”
Cassie embraced her, and they held each other for a long moment. Then Leah cleared her throat. “Okay, let’s get this wreath in the water before we’re both a sobbing mess.”
They each held half of the wreath and stepped closer to the lake. Leah bent so part of the wreath was in the water and then bowed her head. “Dear Lord, thank You for giving us William. We’re grateful for all the years we shared with him and the many ways he enriched our lives.” Leah pictured William in her mind. “Until we meet again, my friend.”
She and Cassie released the wreath. It bobbed on the water, drifting farther out onto the lake, pushed by the gentle current and a faint breeze. The scent of gardenias, the flowers on the wreath, wrapped around them like a comforting embrace. Leah felt the tension of the day ease from her muscles.
Cassie glanced at her watch. “Oh, Leah, I’m sorry. I’ve got to run or I’m going to be late for my meeting. We have a new horse arriving tonight from West Texas.” She ran a horse rehabilitation center. The best in Texas. “Poor thing looks awful in the pictures.”
Leah winced. How anyone could abuse an animal, she couldn’t fathom. It was far too common and something she saw regularly as the lead administrator for the Knoxville Animal Shelter. “Don’t worry, Cass. Thanks for coming with me.”
“You don’t want to walk back to our cars together?”
“It’s so pretty here. I’ll stay for a bit and watch the sunset.”
“Okay.” Cassie started to turn, then paused. “I almost forgot to ask. How did your doctor’s appointment go today?”
Leah had spent hours at the hospital, being poked and prodded. No wonder she was emotionally on edge. These tests would determine if her breast cancer was in full remission or if the beast had reared its ugly head to take another bite at her. She didn’t want to think about it. “The results should be in next week. For now, we just wait.”
“I’ll be praying for you.” Cassie gave her one last hug before hurrying up the trail. Her slender form disappeared behind the tree branches.
A collection of rocks jutted into the lake from the shoreline. Leah used one as a chair, propping her legs up on another. Sweat dripped down her back. Judging from the waning sunlight, it would be twilight soon. Mosquitoes droned, hovering at the lake edge, but didn’t bother her. Leah had doused herself with an obscene amount of bug spray before venturing into the woods.
Silence embraced her. The wreath was a faint dot on the water. A blue-gray heron stretched its long neck above the weeds along the shoreline before taking flight. The giant bird was a beauty to behold. Leah let her gaze follow it across the lake, contentment seeping into her pores. She loved the peacefulness of nature.
A bush rustled behind her. Leah turned, half expecting a woodland creature to emerge from the tree line. A squirrel or maybe even an otter. Her pulse skittered as a very different kind of animal stepped free of the branches.
A man wearing a pig mask.
She froze, shock rendering her muscles useless as her mind tried to process what was happening. Was this some kind of joke? A foolish individual looking to scare someone alone on the lake? Her ears strained to hear the sound of anyone else on the trail behind the masked man. A group of friends, witness to the horrible prank, maybe filming it for social media.
Nothing. There was no one behind the man.
He stepped closer and something inside Leah snapped into crisp clarity. This wasn’t a joke. He meant her harm.
She bolted from the set of rocks, her tennis shoes sliding in the mud along the water’s edge. Going back up the path toward the parking lot wasn’t possible. The masked man was blocking it. Instead, Leah ran along the coastline. Weeds grabbed at her ankles and low-hanging tree branches threatened to smack her in the face. Footsteps pounded behind her, striking terror in her heart.
He was coming for her. To catch her.
And then…only God knew what he would do to her.