The day Brenna disappeared seared itself into my memory like nothing in my life before or since.
After I realized she wasn’t in her room, for the first hour or more I worried, but I didn’t panic. Teenagers do stupid things. But I called. And called. And called again. It wasn’t like Brenna to have her phone off. She lived on her phone. Ninety percent of the time her brain was more hooked into Instagram, Kik, and Snapchat than reality.
Almost ten a.m., I realized I wasn’t going to church. Or, I thought, I could just take Sam, then deal with Brenna whenever it was she came back home. It incensed me. For the hundredth time I checked Brenna’s location on my phone. No updates—her phone hadn’t checked in since midnight.
“Erin, maybe you should sit down,” Cole said. “You’ve been pacing for an hour.”
Irritation flashed down my spine. “You could stand to be more concerned.”
He set his iPad to the side. “Erin, we were both teenagers, too. How many times did we do something that pissed off our parents? Or sneaked out without telling them where we were going?”
I shook my head. “I never did that.”
“Well, I did. I’m worried too, but I’m willing to bet she’ll come wandering in any minute, oblivious. Anyway, pacing won’t help. Have you called Chase?”
I sighed. Hesitant to admit the possibility she’d snuck out and slept with her boyfriend. “I’ll call.”
“Okay. I’m going to call in to the meeting.”
He stood and walked toward his office. He paused for a second, as if on the verge of saying something… then continued on to his office down the hall.
After Lori told me Brenna was dating Chase, our house had erupted into open warfare, for at least a little while. Brenna refused to stop seeing him, and for months stopped talking to Lori, who had always been her hero. I grounded Brenna, demanding that she promise to stop seeing Chase. Ayanna Walker had brokered a cease-fire, beginning with a demand that Chase meet with me.
Ayanna and I have never been close. Even though I took the kids to church, her open and devout Christianity sometimes made me uncomfortable.
But her husband Jeremiah was Cole’s best and only friend. They’d been roommates at Georgia Tech until Cole dropped out. When the kids were younger we’d gone to Atlanta several years and eaten Thanksgiving lunch with the Walkers before going to Cole’s parents. They had stayed with us several times over the years when visiting Washington.
Their girls—twins—were about Sam’s age, and Ayanna worked with teenagers professionally. Somehow Ayanna got Brenna to calm down enough to talk with me.
Chase come over to our house on a Thursday evening. Cole was out of town (of course), so it was just Brenna, me and Chase. He’d worn newish looking blue jeans and a button-down shirt and looked as uncomfortable as anyone I’d ever seen.
“Sit down,” I said, with no introduction.
“Yes, ma’am,” he’d said.
Once he sat in the leather loveseat, I took a seat on the couch across from him. Brenna was beside him. I didn’t like the way we were organized—the seating arrangement implied they were a couple—but it was too late to do anything about it.
“What do you want with my daughter? You’re an adult. Why would you date a high school junior?”
Chase flinched a little. Then he met my eyes. “Mrs. Roberts… I met Brenna at the coffee shop. I had no idea she was in high school when we met. Honestly she seemed a lot older. I swear to you—we haven’t—we won’t—do anything inappropriate. I would never want to hurt her.”
“You’re hurting her right now. She should date someone in her school.”
Brenna rolled her eyes. “Mom. The boys at my school are all idiots. I lo—I like Chase.”
A shiver ran down my spine. She’d almost said I love Chase. I needed to be careful, or I might lose my daughter trying to protect her.
I studied him. “Then tell me about yourself. Convince me. Because right now I see an adult who is chasing a high-school girl, and that makes me want to call the police.”
“Mom!” Brenna’s voice was hoarse as she near shouted the word.
“It’s okay,” Chase said to her, resting a hand on hers. “I don’t blame her for asking the questions.”
“But Chase, she’s being a—”
“Sweety, stop. Let me do this.” His voice was firm, and she stopped talking. I didn’t like that. Brenna normally responded to that sort of tone with open combat.
Maybe it was just a sign that this older boy — man — was taking advantage of her youth and inexperience. Brenna liked to act and think she was eighteen, but the fact was, she was a fifteen-year-old girl. She knew nothing of the dangers out there.
“So answer my question… what do you want with my daughter?” I didn’t layer any honey on my question—I was angry and suspicious of Chase.
Brenna rolled her eyes at the question. He cleared his throat and shifted in his seat a little, looking anxious. “Mrs. Roberts… I didn’t expect any of this to happen. I didn’t expect to meet Brenna, and I didn’t plan on getting involved with her. But I won’t lie to you. I love her.”
He loved her. Bullshit. I loved her, she was my daughter. What the hell was wrong with this guy, old enough to be in college, who wanted to date a 15-year-old. Who does that? I didn’t bother to filter my feelings. “In that case, what’s wrong with you? Were you not able to find a girl your own age? Do you have a thing for younger girls?”
Brenna gasped. She stood up, raged on her face. “Mama, you can’t say that—”
“Brenna—” his interruption was soft, but once again she listened. It made my stomach twist a little to see her immediate obedience. “Sweetie, sit down. Your mother has a right to ask these questions.”
I expected her to storm off. I expected there to be door slamming and rage. Instead she sat down. She crossed her arms, crossed her right leg over the left, and looked away from us both, foot tapping and chin trembling. A tear ran down her face.
“I love her,” he murmured. The words were no less offensive the second time around. “But I’m fully aware that she is not old enough for that kind of involvement yet, Mrs. Roberts. I promise you, I wouldn’t ever do anything to hurt her.”
“Are the two of you having sex?”
He shook his head. “No.” His answer was clear and direct. I believed him. That night, I told Cole the same, relaying the entire conversation to Cole over the phone that evening. He had been in San Francisco… or maybe New Mexico? The last couple of years he’d been traveling so much that it was hard to remember where he was.
It made no difference, here or not. Cole was in town now, but even with our daughter missing he couldn’t leave work long enough to pay attention. Instead he disappeared to his office for a conference call. Who does conference calls on Sunday morning?
I paged through the contacts on my phone until I found Chase. I hesitated with my thumb over his name for a moment, then I pressed it. The phone rang three times before he answered.
“Hello?” His voice sounded groggy.
“Chase, I want to talk to Brenna.”
Befuddled, he asked, “Mrs. Roberts?”
“Chase… don’t bother lying. Please put her on the phone.”
“Mrs. Roberts… Brenna isn’t here. I haven’t seen her since last night.”
Impatience transitioned into panic. “Last night? You saw her last night? When?”
“I sent her home. She showed up at midnight wanting to surprise me. I told her she couldn’t do that, that we’d agreed on the rules with you… and… we had a fight. Are you saying she didn’t come home?” His voice was rising to a high pitch, but all I heard was, midnight. Midnight. We had a fight.
“Chase, where is my daughter.” Panic was setting in.
“Can’t you check her phone? She complained about you guys using her phone to track her movements. I told her it was for safety. Can’t you check it?”
“Tell me the truth, damn you!”
Cole’s office door opened and he poked his head out.
Chase’s voice was high-pitched. Panicky. Was he afraid we would find out something? Had he done something to her? “Mrs. Roberts, I don’t know where she is! If she didn’t come home, you need to call the police right now!”
For a second or five or a hundred I stood there, with my heartbeat whooshing in my ears. But then it hit me. He’d said they’d had a fight and that she’d left at midnight. Either he was lying, and he done something to her… or he wasn’t lying… and something had happened to her. My daughter.
Cole’s name came out in a shriek.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.