City of Secrets
Previously: Natasha's first week in Caribou Canyon isn't going as planned. Not only was her guidance counselor murdered, but Natasha was the one who discovered the body. Still shaken from the experience, Natasha is confused and upset that most of the other students don't seem to care. Natasha's plan to get in with the popular crowd was a success, but three different students warned her to be careful around them. Natasha doesn't know what to think of her new school, or the town.
“I bet it’s nice to be you. Life must be so simple,” Natasha said as she scratched Surya, her aunt’s cat, behind the ears. Surya, a giant orange ball of fluff, rubbed her head against Natasha’s stomach and purred.
“She likes you,” Claudia said as she walked into the living room, carrying a mug in each hand.
“She’s been my little shadow since I got here. Shadow. Maybe that should be her new name.”
Claudia gave the cat a scrutinizing look. “I’m not sure she looks like a Shadow. She’s more like a sun.”
“Good point.” Natasha had never had a pet. When she was a kid she’d always wanted a dog, but Ellen and Steven had never agreed to it. Natasha remembered that not so long ago, she thought not being allowed a pet was the greatest injustice ever done to her. If only, she thought.
Claudia set the mugs on the coffee table and took a seat next to Natasha. “She doesn’t like most people. In fact, she hates Liam.”
“I noticed. Poor Liam.” Natasha thought the overly dramatic way Surya reacted to Claudia’s fiancé was funny.
“He’s tough. He can take it.”
When Natasha turned to look at her aunt, she still felt the same jolt to her system she’d felt the first time she’d laid eyes on Claudia. It was just too weird, seeing a woman who looked like an older version of yourself, considering that until recently, you didn’t even know that person existed. That shock was followed by an ever-ripening anger. That anger wasn’t directed at Claudia, nor was it brought on by her. It was the fact that, every time Natasha looked at her, she was reminded of the lie she’d lived for seventeen years. She felt like the world’s biggest fool that it had never occurred to her that she looked nothing like Steven or Ellen.
Claudia let out a large, prolonged yawn. There were dark circles under her eyes, and her face was paler than usual.
“It seems to be my permanent state lately.”
Natasha fidgeted with the sleeve of her sweater, trying to decide whether to ask her next question. One more glance at her aunt’s weary appearance made up her mind. “Claudia, do you think you should see a doctor?”
“I have. He checked everything. I’m in perfect health. He says it’s probably just stress. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. This vacation is coming at just the right time.”
“Yeah, it is.” Natasha was relieved there was nothing wrong with her aunt, but the reminder of Claudia’s upcoming vacation irritated her. She’d just connected with her aunt, and in three days she would be taking a two-week vacation. It wasn’t fair. The trip had been planned months before Natasha had come into the picture, so there was nothing she could say about it. She just hoped the time would go by quickly, but it was going to be awkward staying alone in the house with Claudia’s fiancé, a strangely quiet man who rarely smiled.
Not wanting her aunt to notice her discomfort, Natasha turned her attention to the mug on the table. When she leaned forward to take it, Surya jumped off her lap. After sitting on the floor for a few seconds looking thoroughly affronted, the cat jumped onto the recliner and curled up. Natasha glanced into the mug. “Marshmallows? I haven’t had marshmallows in my hot chocolate since I was a kid.”
Claudia smiled. “I thought you could use the extra comfort.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Right, because marshmallows are going to bring my parents back. Natasha immediately felt guilty. Claudia was trying, at least. Natasha sipped the cocoa, but it didn’t give her comfort; drinking hot chocolate in early September wasn’t something she’d ever done. It just wasn’t right, despite the fact that the weather called for it.
“How are you doing?” Claudia asked.
“I don’t know. Okay, I guess. It’s just—weird still.”
Claudia patted her on the knee. “I can’t imagine. I’m sorry your first week turned out like this.”
“Claudia, why haven’t my pa—Steven and Ellen called?” She cringed at her slip up, anger and pain warring in her heart. Despite the fact that she knew Ellen and Steven were her aunt and uncle, it was hard not to still think of them as her parents. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they haven’t, but I don’t get why. It’s been three days. I was sure they’d have freaked and dragged me back home by now.”
“First of all, Natasha, I wouldn’t let them just take you back home if it’s not what you wanted. You’ve been left without a choice your whole life. You’re almost eighteen, it’s about time you got one.”
“Thanks. At least someone’s on my side.” Though Natasha wasn’t completely sure of that statement. She wanted to believe everything Claudia said was true, but her story didn’t completely add up.
“I am.” Claudia gave her another reassuring pat on the leg. “And second of all, the reason they haven’t called is because they don’t know there’s a reason to call.”
It took a second for the meaning of that statement to register. “Wait, you mean they don’t know about Ms. Miller?”
“I doubt it. If they did, I’m sure they would’ve ‘freaked and dragged you home’ as you put it. Or at least, they would’ve tried.”
“But why don’t they know? A murder in a small town like this?” Natasha felt her frustration rise as the same nagging feeling that she’d had for the past few days popped up: something wasn’t right.
“They don’t know for the same reason they don’t know about most things that happen here. No one does. We—the residents, I mean—don’t want publicity. We like our privacy. Right now, it’s Douglas Harper we have to thank for preserving it.”
“Douglas Harper? I don’t get it,” Natasha said, Penny Harper’s face flashing into her mind.
“Doug is one of the top executives at First Digital News Group. They’re based in Denver, and own a number of newspapers in—I think it’s ten different states. Not to mention all the Internet magazines.”
Natasha was silent for a few seconds, letting Claudia’s words sink in. “So, you’re saying that Douglas Harper covers up stories? Is that legal?” As the pieces came together in her mind, she felt like an idiot for not making the connection sooner. The world hadn’t known about Richie’s death, not at first. The news of his accident wasn’t in any papers or any Internet news or gossip sites. Richie’s fans found out about his death only after the band had announced Toni Torrance as the new lead guitarist. That was almost a week later.
“He doesn’t cover up stories.” There was a clear note of defensiveness in Claudia’s voice that Natasha made a point to remember later. “He just makes sure things up here don’t get too much attention. Nothing ever makes the front page, the articles don’t get pictures or catchy headlines. That sort of thing. He’s doing the town a favor.”
Natasha took a drink of cocoa to give herself time to reply without sounding angry. She didn’t want her aunt to know how suspicious she found the whole thing. She kept her voice neutral when she asked, “How is that?”
“Think about it. The people here are high profile. They’re wealthy and they hold important positions. Doug’s own wife is an actress—small time—but still. And here we all are, in one town. This place could easily be a circus, but it’s not, because we keep things quiet. We’re here for a reason: privacy. Peace and quiet. If we wanted publicity, we’d move to the city.”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” Natasha said, though it didn’t, not completely. It wasn’t as though people had gotten famous and moved up there for the quiet. Most of the residents were natives of Caribou Canyon, or married to natives. Most people hadn’t chosen to move there—they’d chosen to stay. The question, was why?
“It has its benefits. For instance, you don’t have to deal with your aunt and uncle overreacting and trying to make you come home.” Claudia smiled when she said it, but Natasha couldn’t help but wonder if she hadn’t brought it up for a reason.
“You’re not going to tell them, are you?” she asked, mainly to make her aunt think that the subject of Douglas Harper and his sketchy media coverage was forgotten.
Claudia shook her head. “Not if you don’t want me to. I’m on your side, Natasha. I hate that they lied to you. Now, I only want to do whatever I can to make it right.”
Claudia sounded sincere, and Natasha wanted to believe her, but something told her not to trust Claudia—not completely. Natasha bit her lip, wondering if she should ask Claudia the thing that had been bothering her from the beginning. Since Claudia seemed to be in a talkative mood, she decided to go for it. “Why didn’t you try harder? Write more letters, come to see me, something.” Though she tried to stop it, her voice rose in pitch, giving away the hurt she felt that her aunt had given up on her so easily.
This was what didn’t add up. According to Claudia, she hadn’t known that Steven and Ellen never told Natasha about her real parents. Claudia said she’d spent the past fifteen years thinking Natasha didn’t want anything to do with her. Claudia had written Natasha letters, but she’d never seen a single one of them. Steven and Ellen had hidden them from her. Just the thought of it made the anger that was now always simmering inside her heat to a boil.
“I’m sorry, Natasha. I should’ve tried harder. I wish I had. But I truly thought you had no interest in getting to know me. I didn’t want to pressure you, so I stopped writing when it became clear you weren’t going to respond. I figured you knew I was here if you wanted to reach out. In retrospect, I should’ve known something wasn’t right,” Claudia said, her voice full of regret. It was almost enough to make Natasha believe her. Almost. “I’m truly sorry, Natasha,” Claudia repeated. “I want to make it up to you.”
“I know, and you are. You’re letting me live here. I really appreciate it.” Natasha meant it. She was genuinely grateful for her aunt’s hospitality, despite the things that made her spidey sense tingle.
“Not as much as I appreciate having you here. I’m so glad to finally get to know you. I just wish—” Claudia paused, her forehead wrinkling. After a few seconds, she shook her head swiftly, as though clearing it. “I just wish things had been different.”
Natasha was about to ask if something was wrong, but her aunt continued before she got the chance. “It’s too bad I’ll be missing you for these next two weeks. If I’d known you were coming, I wouldn’t have planned the trip.”
“It’s okay,” Natasha lied, because what else could she say?
“You’re sure you’ll be okay here with Liam?”
It’s like she’s reading my mind. But she couldn’t tell her aunt the truth. Natasha had no real reason to dislike Liam. It was just that she didn’t know him. “I told you, it’s fine. Go and enjoy yourself.”
“I keep telling her the same thing. She worries too much,” Liam said, walking into the room.
Natasha jumped, causing lukewarm liquid to slosh out of the mug onto her hand. Where the heck did he come from? She hadn’t heard a sound; she hadn’t even known Liam was home.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Here.” Liam’s voice was soft, like it always was, and he moved with graceful steps into the room. He reached for a box of tissues on the end table, which just happened to be next to the chair Surya was curled up on. The cat lifted her head and fixed her gaze on Liam. When he leaned forward to hand Natasha the box, a low growl emanated from her throat. Natasha hadn’t even known cats were capable of growling.
She set the mug on the table and took the tissues from Liam. “It’s okay. Surya’s got my back,” she said, trying to make light of the situation.
“That she does.” Liam said, his voice even and calm, and without amusement. Natasha would’ve thought he was angry, if his voice weren’t so soft.
Natasha wiped up the spilled cocoa, wondering what her aunt saw in Liam. The two of them seemed to have nothing in common. Claudia was perky and friendly, whereas Liam was quiet, mysterious, and didn’t know how to make—or take—a joke. Then there was the age difference. Claudia was thirty-nine, and though Natasha didn’t know Liam’s age, he didn’t look older than twenty-five.
“Hey, you. How long have you been home?” Claudia asked, affection in her voice.
Liam moved to stand behind Claudia. He put his hands on her shoulders, gently massaging them, and Surya’s growling grew louder. “Just a few minutes.”
“Claudia, do my pa—aunt and uncle know you’re going on a cruise?” Natasha asked.
“Not unless you told them.”
Natasha shook her head. “No. Um, do you think we could keep it that way?” Natasha knew there was no way Steven and Ellen would be okay with her being alone for two weeks in a house with a man they didn’t know.
“Natasha, I’ll only tell them what you want me to. I hope you know that. I’m on your side,” she said, smiling.
“Thanks.” Natasha smiled back at Claudia, trying to pretend she didn’t notice the way Liam’s eyes were fixed on her. He did that a lot. His eyes were a watery dark brown, like black coffee. They were set deep into his smooth, pale face. His hair was thick and wavy, and almost as dark as his eyes. The contrast between his face and his hair added to the mysterious vibe he carried with him. Natasha thought he might be attractive if he ever smiled, but there was always a look of intensity on his face, as though he were solving some intricate math problem, or possibly plotting a murder. It was unnerving, and it sometimes gave Natasha the impression he could pull every thought from her head just by looking into her eyes.
Natasha wasn’t the only one who hated the way Liam looked at her. Surya was growling so loud that she sounded like a vacuum cleaner. She was now standing on the chair, back arched, fur standing up, and head stretched toward Liam, ready to attack.
“You cut that out,” Claudia said. Surya hissed in Liam’s direction before jumping off the chair and bounding out of the room. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why she does that with you.”
“It’s okay. At least you’re not one of those women who judges men based on how her cat feels about them.” Liam’s voice was as soft and even as always, but it was a statement that was meant to be accompanied by a smile, a laugh, something. The fact that it wasn’t made it seem hostile, at least to Natasha.
Claudia tilted her head back, looking at Liam with a serious expression. “I don’t know, honey, she may have a point.”
Eek, mushy teasing: my cue to leave. Natasha stood, grabbing her mug and the dirty tissues. She nodded at Claudia’s mostly empty mug. “Are you done?”
Natasha took the mugs into the kitchen. She was rinsing them out when the landline telephone rang. She thought nothing of it until Liam came into the kitchen. “Natasha, it’s for you.”
“Me?” she asked in surprise. Liam nodded.
Natasha’s stomach fluttered nervously. There was only one person she’d given that number to, and she wasn’t prepared to talk to him. She whispered, “Tell him I’m not here.”
Liam raised his eyebrows, but the effect was more accusatory than questioning, and it only increased the sick feeling in Natasha’s stomach. At least Liam had the sense to cover the receiver with his hand when he said, “I already told him you were home.”
She sighed in annoyance, but moved to take the phone from Liam.
“Why is he calling the landline?” he asked, staring at her with that intense gaze again, the one that told her he knew exactly what she was thinking.
Because I’ve been ignoring his texts. “Uh, my cell died. It’s upstairs charging.” It was a lie. She’d just left her phone upstairs so she wouldn’t have to hear Nick’s calls and texts, and therefore wouldn’t have to think about it. She’d forgotten that she’d given him Claudia’s home number.
Liam nodded, though it was clear from his expression that he didn’t believe her. Natasha took the phone and carried it upstairs to her bedroom, her legs heavy and her heart sick.