Adrienne Morelli leaned back in the chaise lounge, tantalized by the aroma of Porterhouse steaks sizzling on the grill. A picnic table draped in a red and white checkered tablecloth had already been set for three. A large pitcher of iced tea, its sides beading with moisture, sat in readiness for dinner to begin. She sighed in contentment.
Her father finished turning the steaks and closed the lid on the grill. Laying aside his tongs, he maneuvered his wheelchair at an angle to the chaise.
“Just a few more minutes,” he said and winked.
“Good. I’m starved.” She smiled and reached toward him, taking his hand in hers. “I’m glad to see you looking so relaxed, Dad. Mom says you haven’t slowed down since the election.”
He pressed a kiss to her knuckle and shrugged. “There’s a lot of work to do for our fine state. But it does my heart good to see my little girl again, even if it’s only for the weekend.”
She huffed a breath in good-natured exasperation and withdrew her hand. “Dad. I’m not little anymore. I’m a woman. All grown-up.”
“And a beautiful woman at that.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, whatever.”
She didn’t consider herself blessed with an abundance of beauty, not in the way her mother had been. As her parents’ only child, Adrienne definitely took after her father in the looks department–average features, lean, long-legged and athletic. Well, her father had been athletic until a skiing accident the year before crippled him.
But at least she could claim she’d inherited his brains–and his love for the wonderful state of Tennessee.
Her gaze lingered on the dense forest bordering the mountain chalet her parents had rented. Maple, oak and yellow poplar trees grew lush and thick on the mammoth slopes of the Great Smokies. Wildflowers colored the woods with nature’s crayon in vibrant shades of purples, pinks and oranges, and hundreds of species of wildlife called the forest home. Adrienne marveled at all of it.
“Quite a view, isn’t it?” her father asked.
“Spectacular as always.”
“It’s important to keep the Tennessee wilderness untouched, Adrienne. The thought of developers coming in to build their golf courses, swimming pools and tennis courts makes my stomach turn.”
“Your mother has been working with Murdock, Inc.. They’re ready to deed us another two thousand acres of wilderness in Scott’s Gulf.”
The project had been Julia Morelli’s passion, Adrienne knew. Saving the Tennessee wilderness. After her father’s skiing accident, she’d stepped in to win the Murdock corporation’s confidence and subsequent approval to donate the land to the state.
Adrienne thought of the conservation group who labored tirelessly with her mother to preserve the beauty in their part of Tennessee. “I’m sure the Scott’s Gulf Alliance is thrilled.”
“Ecstatic is more like it.” Julia smiled and set a bowl of lettuce salad, covered in plastic wrap, on the picnic table.
She moved toward the wheelchair, and her father shifted, giving her room to perch on the armrest. He slipped his arm around her hips and patted her thigh.
The gesture struck Adrienne as intimate in its simplicity, familiar and loving and one of many she’d witnessed throughout her life. Julia was a wife who preferred to be close to her husband any chance she could. Her devotion ran deep and genuine, and a sudden pang of longing stung Adrienne. She wanted a love of her own some day, a man to cherish forever, like her parents cherished each other. They made ‘happiness’ look easy, she mused, and because of them, Adrienne’s expectations had always been high. Maybe too high. She had plenty of male friends, but none of them had stolen her heart. Some days, she wondered if any one would.
“Your mother has done a fantastic job with Murdock. She’s charmed the Board of Directors to her way of thinking,” Daniel said proudly.
“Not all of them,” Julia said with a sudden frown, giving Adrienne an inkling that someone had been resisting her efforts, and the schmoozing hadn’t been entirely easy. “But now that all the squabbling is over, everything has fallen into place.”
“Squabbling?” Adrienne asked.
“You know the saying,” her father said. “‘One bad apple’….”
Julia tapped a manicured finger on his lips, hushing him before he could finish. “We don’t want to bore Adrienne with state business. Not another word about bad apples or Scott’s Gulf for the rest of the weekend. Okay?”
“Okay.” He nipped at the red-painted fingernail, and she snatched her hand away with a soft laugh, then stood. “How are those steaks coming?”
“Done by now, I think.” He rolled the wheelchair toward the grill.
“Adrienne, I’ve left the salad dressings in the ‘fridge. Ranch and Roquefort. Bring them both out, won’t you?”
“We should have a nice bouquet of flowers to enjoy during dinner.”
“The table already looks nice,” Adrienne said, but her gaze slid toward the wildflowers again.
“Flowers will be festive. How often does our little girl come to stay with us for the weekend?”
Adrienne’s mouth softened in amusement at Julia’s teasing, and she ignored the urge to state her evolution into womanhood again. Her mother strolled across the lawn toward a patch of wild blue phlox growing at the edge of the forest.
Adrienne considered the trim figure sheathed in designer jeans, silk shell and skimpy Italian sandals. Some would call Julia Morelli a trophy wife, a vision of well-groomed perfection to complement her husband in his gubernatorial seat with the state of Tennessee.
But she was more than that. She worked hard to help him be the best he could be. Her determination to win the land deed would be an asset to his leadership position in the state, and as a former beauty queen and film star, she had grown to be a favorite of the media, a photographer’s delight. Her radiance charmed the most hardened of the opposition.
Everyone loved Julia Morelli. But none more so than her husband and daughter.
Something glinted from within the depths of the forest. A flash so quick and bright, Adrienne’s eyelids reacted in a sudden blink. Only a few dozen yards away, her mother knelt, gathering the wild phlox. Adrienne’s heart fell into uneven rhythm.
Her stare clawed the trees, her mind rushing to form images of black bears and wild boars, drawn by the scent of grilling steaks. She rose uneasily from the chaise lounge.
Movement stirred within the shadows. Her mother finished her picking and straightened, cradling the bundle of flowers in her arm; her fingers busily arranged the stems.
And before Adrienne could warn her, before she could scream her mother’s name, a gunshot sliced through the mountain air, and Julia Morelli fell into a bloody, lifeless heap.