“I can’t believe you can get two seven-year-olds to work in your garden in this August heat,” Claire’s friend Kris Kane told her as they watched Claire’s daughter, Lexi, and her cousin Jilly pull weeds from around the flowers in the Markwood backyard.
“It’s the butterflies they’re interested in. The brightly colored flowers and those hanging nectar pans attract them. Lexi’s obsessed, says she’s going to major in butterflies in college. She adores her first grade teacher, who retired last year and has a butterfly farm out past the citrus orchard just before the Glades begin.”
“Oh, the place your sister works part-time?”
“Right. And speaking of butterflies, would you and Mitch be interested in a butterfly release at your wedding rather than having everyone throw rice? It’s one of the services the Flutterby Farm provides, and Nick and I would be happy to arrange it as a gift to you.”
Kris’s fiancé, Mitch Blakeman, and Claire’s ex-husband, Lexi’s father, Jace, were best friends and pilots who flew together, literally into the storm, checking data on hurricanes along the east coast, clear down to Florida. They had all joked it was best for the men to be commuting to that job from as far away as possible. Kris and Mitch were engaged to be married as soon as the hurricane season ended later this autumn.
“I’ve heard of butterfly releases for funerals, but weddings?” Kris said. “I’d have to run it by Mitch but anything having to do with flight, he’d probably be all for. Claire, I don’t know how you ever kept sane when you were married to a pilot. Sorry to bring that up, but I do worry about Mitch, not only because of the flying, but the work itself now that he’s a storm spy, as he calls himself.”
Claire sighed and stood to move closer to the huge window to watch Lexi and Jilly work. At least they were pulling weeds, not newly planted lantana this time. “I suppose you should talk to Brittany about that, since she’s married to Jace now,” she told Kris. “I think it’s great you and Brit have become good friends—the archaeologist and the zoologist, no less.”
“I’m sorry, Claire. I didn’t mean to bring up any—”
“It’s okay. Nick and I are friends with Jace and Brit, and Lexi’s close to her father. She calls him Daddy and calls Nick Dad. But I understand your concern for Mitch’s new career. Lexi would be devastated if anything happened to Jace. All I worry about these days is that some disgruntled client Nick defends in court will turn on him. He’s in court right now, defending an elderly lady who has been wrongfully accused of fraud. He never knows what’s coming next.”
She turned back from watching the girls. “We’ve been through enough dangerous situations that I’ve become a worrywart, and Nick’s even worse. He’s so protective of me. But I’ve been happy just running my website and doing some forensic psych consulting lately, mostly on corporate fraud. Our detective friend at the Collier County Sheriff’s Department still wants me to work there part-time, but for now, I’ve turned him down. It’s been a great—and quiet— year, staying home, taking care of little Trey and keeping an eye on my mad butterfly gardeners when Darcy’s working. She takes them to work with her some days. But try not to worry too much about Mitch chasing storms. Hurricanes or not, he and Jace know what they’re doing in the air.”
“Both of them are danger junkies to the core,” Kris admitted. “I’ve noticed Trey’s walking great for a sixteenmonth-old,” she said with a glance at him standing up in his playpen.
Observing people as closely as she did, Claire thought it was a pretty smooth attempt to change the subject. “Sometimes he’s walking too great,” she told Kris, going over to the playpen to give him the football-shaped beanbag he’d thrown onto the floor. “Good pass, future Florida Gators quarterback!” she teased, and bent to kiss the top of his head.
“He’s into everything,” she added with a smile, and waved at her darling son, Nick’s pride and joy. “I don’t like to have him in that playpen too long, but he’s out and about enough to do me in.”
The little guy waved back and said something only he understood. But quarterbacks in their huddles used secret language, anyway, Nick had said.
Smiling at that thought, Claire picked up her cell on the coffee table when it sounded. “Oh, it’s Darcy,” she said, looking at the screen. “You know, she might be my younger sister, but she’s always been one to reach out, make sure I’m okay.”
“I remember from our college days, she was always calling to check in.”
Claire turned away, her back toward the window. “Hi, Darcy. Are you done at the Flutterby already? The girls are fine.”
“This is Darcy’s sister, right? Lexi’s mother, Claire Markwood?” a woman’s voice asked.
Claire’s heartbeat kicked up. “Yes? Ms. Gerald? Why are you calling from Darcy’s phone? Is she all right?”
“I took some butterfly release packages to the post office. When I came back—well, I can’t find her anywhere. And her car is gone.”
“If she’s not there, how are you calling me on her cell?”
“It was here on the floor in the first butterfly house. I shouted all around for her, even in the residence, but with her car gone…and some things disturbed…”
Claire’s stomach went into free fall.
“I don’t know whether to call the police,” the woman went on. “I mean, I don’t want to alarm you, but Darcy would never leave the door of this big butterfly house open. It’s the one that houses all the exotics. But it was wideopen, and some of the butterflies are gone—gone, too.”
“I’ll be right there, and we’ll call the police together. No—I have a contact there I’ll call on my way. I’ll be there as fast as I can.”
She punched off and turned to a concerned Kris. “I can’t explain right now, but can you do me a huge favor? I know you said you had errands but there’s an emergency at the butterfly farm, and I need to go there now. Could you stay and watch Trey and the girls until I can get our nanny to come over? You’ve met Nita. She’s eight months pregnant but she gets around fine.”
“Sure. Of course. Anything else?”
Still holding her cell, Claire ran for her purse in the master bedroom, calling back over her shoulder, “Like I said, Nick’s in court, so I can’t call him right now. I may leave him a message. If you hear from him, please have him call me.” She snatched her purse and sunglasses, tore back out. “Tell the girls I just had to run an errand. There are cookies on the counter and juice in the fridge.”
“Claire, is everything okay?”
“I’ll know more when I get here. Thanks for doing this,” she called back over her shoulder as she rushed toward the garage.
Yes, something was wrong. Very wrong…
Claire tried not to speed, but she was panicked to get there. She never used the phone when she was driving, but she had today, calling Nita Munez, their nanny. She had intended to call Ken Jensen, a friend and detective she and Nick had worked with before, but she decided to hold off on that. Surely Tara Gerald was overreacting. Darcy might have dropped her phone without knowing it, then run an errand and would be right back. But then there was that door carelessly left ajar at the exotic butterfly house. That didn’t sound like Darcy at all.
Ms. Gerald had been Lexi’s first-grade teacher last year and an excellent one, though she’d recently retired to work her beloved butterfly farm full-time. Lexi had been devastated she’d no longer see her around school, but Claire and Darcy had visited the farm with their daughters and one thing led to another. Darcy accepted a part-time job there, occasionally taking the girls with her.
Claire gripped the steering wheel with both hands as she turned off Collier Boulevard onto narrow Sabal Palm, which led to the farm. About three more miles. The road was only paved partway out.
She sped now, past a garden center, then an orchid farm. Her hands shook, and her heart pounded. Darcy had been her mainstay after their salesman father had deserted them and their mother had retreated into her books, adult fiction she’d sometimes read aloud to them. A free literature degree, Darcy had often kidded.
No one else had visited their girlhood home except sometimes their mother’s librarian friend, Will Warren, who dropped off books. He’d later left South Florida and somehow made a fortune for himself. He was back at his old job now, and the kids loved it when Darcy took the girls there for story time while Claire and Nick caught up on work.
The paved road ended with a bump, and the dry dust the car kicked up obliterated everything in Claire’s rearview. The skeletal melaleuca trees on both sides of the road were etched with dust, which would wash away in the season’s terrible storms.
Had Darcy driven this road in the other direction? Fleeing from someone? God forbid, taken by someone? The butterfly farm was the last property on this long road before wilderness began. If only Jace was still flying small crop-dusting planes so he could look for Darcy’s car out in the glades. But no, she couldn’t allow herself to panic. This would turn out all right.
She passed the wooden sign with two beautiful butterflies and the visiting hours for the farm hand-painted on it. The hours included today, right now. Had someone come in to see the place without a reservation and found Darcy alone?
“Seen too much crime,” Claire scolded herself. “This will be okay. Everything will be okay.”
Excerpted from Dark Storm by Karen Harper. Copyright © 2019 by Karen Harper. Published by MIRA Books.