Today was no ordinary day.
Normally Laurel McCallister would have adored spending an evening with her niece, Molly, playing princesses, throwing jacks and just being a kid again, but tonight was anything but typical. Laurel let the wind-driven ice bite into her cheeks. She stood just inside the warm entry of her sister’s Virginia home, staring out into the weather to see the family off to the local Christmas pageant. Her fist clutched the charm bracelet Ivy had forced into Laurel’s hand.
A gift from their missing father.
He’d been incommunicado for over two months, then suddenly the silver jewelry had arrived in Ivy’s mailbox earlier that day. No note, only her father’s shaky handwriting on the address label, and postmarked Washington, D.C. Laurel squeezed the chain, quelling the shiver of foreboding that hadn’t left her since Ivy had showed her the package. Her sister had told her they needed to talk about it. Tonight. The news couldn’t be good, but it would have to wait.
Bracing against the cold, she met her sister’s solemn gaze, then picked up her five-year-old niece. Laurel snuggled Molly closer. At the end of a bout of strep throat, the girl had insisted on waving goodbye to her mother. Ivy returned the farewell wave from across the driveway, apprehension evident in her eyes. And not typical mom-concern-for-her-youngest-daughter’s-health worry.
Laurel scanned the rural setting surrounding Ivy’s house. With the nearest neighbors out of shouting distance, it should be quiet. And safe. Laurel might only be a CIA analyst, but she’d completed the same training as a field operative. She knew what to look for.
Nothing seemed off, and yet, she couldn’t stop the tension knotting every muscle, settling low in her belly. For now, her sister and brother-in-law refused to let the trepidation destroy Christmas for the kids, but Laurel had recognized the strain in her sister’s eyes, the worry on her brother-in-law’s brow. Too many bad vibes filtered beneath the surface of every look her sister had given her.
Laurel touched the silky blond hair of her youngest niece.
Molly stared after her mother, father, brother and sister, her baby blues filled with tears. “It’s not fair. I want to go to the pageant. I’m supposed to be an angel.”
The forlorn voice hung on Laurel’s heart. She placed her hand on the little girl’s hot forehead. “Sorry, Molly Magoo. Not with that fever.”
Ivy bundled Molly’s older brother and sister into the backseat of the car. Laurel sent her sister a confident nod, even though her stomach still twisted. She recognized the same lie in her sister’s eyes. They were so alike.
One of the kids-it must have been Michaela-tossed a stuffed giraffe through the open car door. Ivy shook her head and walked a few paces away to pick up the wayward animal.
Laurel started to close the door. “Don’t worry, Molly. They’ll be back s-“
A loud explosion rocketed the night, and a blast of hot air buffeted Laurel. She staggered back. The driver’s side of the SUV erupted into flames. Fire and smoke engulfed the car in a hellish conflagration. Angry black plumes erupted into the sky.