The last guests departed the mansion at 1:00 A.M. Hector was not among them.
Unable to bring himself to leave, he circled back to the ballroom. Twenty members of the wait staff were removing wine-stained tablecloths, and stacking chairs. Hugh and Birdie had said good night to their guests right before midnight, and made the drive to their apartment above the Post. The band, claiming the place of honor where the bride and groom had spent the evening, was stacking sound equipment and tucking musical instruments into black cases.
Landon had never returned to the reception. By Hector’s count, he’d been missing for two hours and ten minutes.
Was Meade with him?
Hector strode into the two-story foyer where a butler was stationed during the festivities to welcome guests or bid them farewell. The man was gone, the foyer’s chandelier dimmed. Frowning, Hector peered up the grand, L-shaped staircase. People as polished as the Williamses would never retire for the night before seeing their guests off.
At the opposite end of the mansion, he detected the murmur of voices. Following the sound, he walked through a dimly lit corridor. At the end was a kitchen large enough to do double duty in a restaurant. Maids clustered at the center island sorting dishes into stacks, and drying crystal. Beyond them, the Williams’ housekeeper sat at the table jotting notes on a checklist.
He went to her. “Reenie, have you seen Meade and Mr. Williams?”
“Hector. Hello.” She set the pen down. “I thought you left with everyone else.”
“Mr. Williams—where is he?”
“Why, he’s in bed.”
“I checked on him an hour ago. He’s fast asleep.”
“In bed, I assumed.” Reading the worry in his eyes, she added, “Should I check?”
When she returned, the gravity of her expression matched his. “It’s not like Meade to leave for her apartment without telling me,” she explained. “She rarely stays there and besides, she’s planning to spend Sunday with her father. I called and left a message. She’s not picking up her cell either.”
Meade wasn’t at her apartment. He was sure of it. The housekeeper was correct—she wouldn’t leave without alerting someone, and certainly not on the night of her sister’s wedding. She was somewhere on the grounds.
“I’ll find her,” he assured Reenie.
Intuition sent him in the direction of the boathouse, a destination he hoped to reach by memory. The humidity was rising and he shrugged out of his suit jacket. Tossing it over his shoulder, he started across the lawn that formed a green necklace around the mansion. In less than a minute he was out of the glaring floodlights, his pace slowing as his vision adjusted to the night.
Clouds scuttled across the moon, leaving patches of black and grey on the estate’s rolling hills. Using the meager light on his smartphone, he rounded the cutting garden alert for the murmur of the lake’s waters. If the moon didn’t come back out, he wasn’t sure he’d find the way.
He did, despite the near darkness. The door to the boathouse was ajar. There was no one inside.
Worried now, he walked down to the beach. The lull of the waters provided a haunting music. To the left, he made out a thin band of sand merging with the night. Ears pricked, he prayed. In the distance, the faint and harrowing sound of weeping lifted on the air.
Anxiety increased the perspiration slicking down his chest. Pulling off his tie, he left it with his jacket on the bench where he’d chatted with Landon. The breeze kicked up, balmy with summer’s promise. Walk the beach with only his cell phone to guide him? He muttered a curse. If Meade chose to evade discovery, finding her would take time.
Borrowing a flashlight from Reenie would’ve been smart.
“Meade, are you here?”
The snuffling broke off. “Hector?”
The startled response got his feet going. Like a homing pigeon, he went toward her voice.
“Mind giving me a hint? Where are you?”
He found her twenty yards off, huddled on the sand with the gauzy folds of her gown pooling around her. What he could see of the dress didn’t look good. A ragged tear ran through the fabric, as if she’d torn it while walking in the dark. Her hair was unbound, flailing like streamers of indiscriminate color.
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