Chapter 1

Damn! Mel clenched the steering wheel tighter. Muscles tensed as she braced herself against the impact that was sure to come. When it didn't, she sent up a brief prayer of thanks.

"Stupid, snow covered roads." Muttering to herself, she let the car straighten out of the skid, wincing as the vehicle narrowly missed a farmer's mailbox. She blew a puff of air up over her face causing her bangs to float up and then settle on her forehead again. Annoyingly, her long lashes kept catching in her too long fringe of hair—she really needed to make time for a cut, she reminded herself—but she didn't dare take her hands off the wheel to push her hair out of the way. Blinking rapidly, she managed to free her lashes and clear her vision.

The forecast had called for light snow, but the weatherman was obviously an idiot and didn't know a high pressure zone from a low. Heavy white flakes were falling on her windshield and the wipers were having a hard time keeping up. Twice now, she'd been forced to stop and wipe the accumulated white stuff off the blades. In retrospect, she shouldn't have trusted the guy at the rental agency when he said the car was fine, but at ten o'clock at night, after a long flight squished between a large man and a frazzled mother with a crying baby, all she had wanted to do was get a car, escape the confines of the airport and find a room. Now, she wished she'd been a bit more particular.

A road sign appeared through the blur of falling snow, proclaiming that her destination, Smythston, Oregon, was rapidly approaching and she allowed herself to breathe a sigh of relief. Her hour and a half trip had turned into three hours of white knuckle driving. Now, she couldn't wait to get to the Bed and Breakfast where she'd booked a room. A hot shower and dinner, followed by a nap were going to be her reward for surviving this trip.

In the brochure that lay on the seat beside her, The Grey Goose Tea Room sounded quaint and boasted luxury rooms with home cooked meals. Her stomach rumbled at the thought of food, and she knew that even if the place was no better than a mom and pop greasy spoon, she'd devour whatever they had to offer. Her stomach was telling her it was past feeding time the chocolate donut she had eaten earlier in the day was nothing but a dim memory now.

Mel glared at the snow that was messing up her schedule, all the while hoping her room was still available once she finally arrived at her destination. An oncoming transport trailer uncaringly doused her car in slush and she swore vigorously as her view of the road disappeared behind the spray of icy water.

Quickly flicking the wipers onto high, she peered out of the streaked windshield and wondered once again at the sanity of taking on this particular job. It was a ridiculous assignment, but paid well, and since she was next thing to broke, she couldn't be too choosey.

After years of working dead end retail jobs, she'd finally gone back to school, gotten her high school diploma, and then enrolled in the Journalism program at the University of Illinois. It wasn't the most practical course, her guidance counsellors had pointed out. If she was looking for a secure career, computers were the way to go. She'd thanked them kindly for the advice, but knew she'd never be able to sit in an office all day, every day. Being in one place too long didn't suit her—she had 'itchy feet' just like her mother, which was probably why she'd constantly drifted from one job to another. After the initial thrill of learning a new skill wore off, she soon lost interest and found herself searching the want ads for yet another new position.

At least, once she was a journalist, an employer would pay for her to move around. It wasn't a great wage, but it was something she enjoyed, and would hopefully help lessen the restlessness within her. Talking to people, visiting new locations, researching backgrounds; each day would be different or at least that's what she hoped. Right now, she was taking a year off, being half way through the four year program and completely out of funds. By juggling two waitressing jobs and writing a few freelance articles, she calculated she could make enough money to go back to school next year and finish the program.

That was why this job was exactly what she needed. A lawyer, named Leon Aldrich, had contacted her on the behalf of his client —a wealthy client, no less—to do some research for him and then write an article based on her finding. Mel had been a bit surprised to be contacted by the man, wondering how he'd come by her name. Mr. Aldrich hinted that one of her college instructors had passed her name along and Mel had hesitantly accepted the explanation. It was against college rules to show favouritism, and Mel was curious as to who had gone out on a limb and put in the good word for her. The lawyer merely smirked and said she had been chosen from a number of other candidates and it was best not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Not quite sure what to make of the man, Mel had shrugged and listened to his offer. She needed the money and couldn't afford to be too choosy.

The man had presented Mel with a lucrative job offer; in exchange for a ridiculously large sum of money, she was to research a photographer named Ryne Taylor and write an article about his work and his life. It had seemed rather strange to think someone would spend that amount of money just to learn about an artist. The photographer is question wasn't famous as far as Mel could determine, but after thoroughly checking out the lawyer's references and those of his client, Anthony Greyson, she'd decided the job was legitimate and had agreed to the man's terms.

It was pretty simple. Find the reclusive Ryne Taylor. Research his life, where he took his pictures, how he chose his subjects, and who had purchased them. She was to give updates for each new development so they were aware of her progress, write a final article, and then submit it back to the lawyer. All expenses were paid and there was a very loose deadline.

The job seemed almost too good to be true, but if life was going hand her a golden egg on a silver platter, she wasn't going to turn her nose up at it. She frowned, reflecting on her phrasing for that last thought. For a journalist, she had certainly slaughtered the use of those clichés. She chuckled, glad her thoughts were her own and not subject to editorial criticism.

Taking proper note of her surroundings, she realised that she was now inside the town proper. Fumbling for the brochure at her side, she turned to the section that showed a map on how to find the Grey Goose. Placing it on the steering wheel, she glanced between it and the road while looking for street signs to help orient her.

A mere fifteen minutes later, Mel stood in the entry way of the quaint Bed and Breakfast, talking to a distinguished looking gentleman who had introduced himself as Edward Mancini.

"Yes, Ms. Greene, I took your reservation over the phone last night. I'm so glad the weather didn't delay your travel plans."

She smiled and brushed her hair out of her face for probably the fiftieth time that day— she really did need to get it cut. "It wasn't the most pleasant drive, but I made it."

"Well, we're glad you're here safe and sound. If you'll just follow me, Ms. Greene, I'll show you to your room."

"Please, call me Mel." Using her most ingratiating smile, she looked up at the man and noted in response, a faint upturning at the corners of his mouth. He seemed to be on the conservative side and she was pleased to have made a bit of an impression on him.

"Mel, then. And you may call me Edward. Follow me." As she walked behind him, Mel mentally gave herself a point. Getting on a first name basis with the people you were going to interview was a great way to ensure they would be willing to open up to you— or so her instructors had told her. And, while she wasn't going to be interviewing this man exactly, she might have use of him, and his knowledge of the area, later on.

As he led her into her room, she thanked him politely and noticed that he was looking her up and down, surreptitiously. Mel knew what he would see. At five foot four, she wasn't tall, but she balked against the label of short. Her figure was a little disproportionate, being rather too rounded up top, and bit narrow in comparison around the hips. Her legs were slim, and thankfully, due to that fact, looked longer than they actually were. Shoulder length, honey brown hair, and deep brown eyes gave her a warm, friendly look as did her generous smile and perky nose.

Her professors had told her that her friendly, girl-next-door appearance would help her make contacts and win the confidence of those she interviewed. While this might be true, personally Mel longed to be a drop- dead gorgeous, sophisticated reporter who could wrap an interviewee around her finger with a mere bat of her eye and some pithy repartee.

It was impossible that Edward would know what she was thinking, but for some reason the man's lips twitched as he finished giving her a once over. He made no comment, however, merely nodding his head and exiting, softly pulling the door shut behind him.

As the locking mechanism clicked into place, Mel turned to examine her room only to catch of glimpse of herself in the mirror. A mortified groan escaped her. No wonder Edward had trouble keeping a straight face. Her hair was a mess, her coat was buttoned crooked, and there was a slight smudge of chocolate from her make-shift lunch smeared across her chin. Her shoulders sagged; so much for being sophisticated.

Shrugging off her coat, she sat on the edge of the bed and pulled her boots off before flopping backwards on the mattress. Oh well, even if she looked a mess, Edward seemed to like her, and that meant he'd most likely be willing to talk to her when she started doing her research.

As she stared at the ceiling, she ran over her mental checklist on 'how to be a journalist.' Establish contacts— check. Be friendly so the other person would be willing to talk to you — check. Listen attentively — umm, not quite a check.

Mel gnawed on her lip. That was always the hardest part for her. She tended to be a bubbly, outgoing sort who loved to talk and was always forgetting that she wasn't supposed to interrupt the interviewee with her own random thoughts. Mentally, she tattooed the words 'shut up, Mel' across her brain, while ruefully acknowledging that it probably wouldn't help.

Last on her to- do list was reporting the real story without personal bias creeping in — another partial check. 'Report the facts,' the instructors had always told her, 'not opinions.' Unfortunately, Mel tended to have lots of opinions about almost everything, and found it hard not to state them. Well, she mentally shrugged, at least for this assignment all she needed to write was a straight forward report on a person's life. A photographer wasn't likely to be involved in anything controversial and his life couldn't be that interesting. After all, the man took pictures of flowers and wild life; she doubted she'd be able to muster much of a personal opinion about that!

The final report wasn't due for several months, so once she'd tracked the fellow down and interviewed him, she'd have plenty of time to write his life story. Writing was what she did best and those were the courses where she'd received her highest marks. Words seemed to flow through her mind and onto the page in an unending stream. In fact, writing too much tended to be her biggest failing in that area. Luckily, it shouldn't be a problem in this circumstance, she decided. The report didn't have to fit the confines of a newspaper column, so she'd be able to ramble as much as she wished...provided Mr. Taylor had anything in his life worth rambling about!

Lying on the bed, she absentmindedly studied the design of the ceiling and thought about what she'd discovered so far. At first, she'd done the most obvious— searching Ryne Taylor's name on the web. The internet hadn't turned up much; he was a photographer of some minor renown specializing in nature photography. A few art galleries had shown his work with sales being modest. The picture that had sparked her benefactor's interest had been purchased at Bastian's Fine Art Gallery. It was located just a short drive from the man's last known address, which was in Smythston, Oregon. The previous week, she had phoned the gallery, but the call produced very little information. Yes, they had sold several Ryne Taylor photos. No, there was no information available to the public about the photographer himself.

The fact that the information wasn't available to the public meant that there was information available; Mel just needed to find away to get her hands on it. Unable to find an address or phone number for the mysterious Mr. Taylor, she was resorting to what was affectionately called 'old fashioned leg work.' Hence, she found herself travelling half-way across the country in the middle of February to this small non- descript town.

Stretching, she ran her hands through her hair and forced herself to sit up. While she would prefer to be investigating someone on a tropical island, her present location wasn't all bad. Giving a small bounce, she deemed the bed comfortable and looked around the room, for the first time taking real note of her surroundings.

Decorated in turn of the century elegance, the room had gleaming wood and rich hues throughout, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The faint scent of potpourri permeated the space and an elegant bouquet of flowers graced a small occasional table that sat in front of the window. Beyond the mirror that had revealed her less than perfect appearance, there was a small fireplace with a love seat in front of it, a breakfast table and two chairs, a queen sized bed, night tables and a dresser. A door to the side appeared to lead to the bathroom, which made Mel recall her earlier desire for a warm shower and a meal.

Calling the front desk, she arranged for the delivery of a steak, baked potato, and garden salad to her room. While it was being prepared, she headed for the shower emerging fifteen minutes later wrapped in a white terrycloth robe and feeling considerably refreshed.

Her timing was perfect. A knock on the door signalled the arrival of her meal and her stomach rumbled in anticipation. Thanking the slight girl who wheeled the cart in, Melody spared the server a momentary glance. The girl had dark hair and green eyes; she was a pretty thing, only slightly younger than herself.

"If you need anything else, just call downstairs and ask for me. My name's Elise Sinclair."

"Thanks, Elise." Mel lifted the lid off of her plate and inhaled the delectable scent of steak cooked to perfection. "This looks fantastic."

"The Grey Goose is well-known locally for its chef. I've never heard any complaints about the meals."

"Have you worked here long?"

"For about four months. I usually work in the tea room, but Mr. Mancini asked if I'd help out up here this weekend. There's a 'flu bug going around and he's short- handed."

Mel forced herself to ignore her meal in favour of cultivating yet another local contact. Four months was long enough for Elise to have possibly encountered the elusive photographer. She gestured around the room. "This seems like a lovely place. Do you get a lot of business?"

"It's steady. Lots of locals stop by downstairs for lunch and a few rent rooms up here for weekend getaways or if they have company and need a place for guests to stay. And, of course, we get a few travellers such as yourself. Are you planning on staying very long?"

"Actually, I'm sort of a free- lance journalist and I'm researching local artists for an article, so I'm not sure how long I'll be." That was the story Mr. Aldrich, the lawyer, told her to use. He didn't want anyone knowing who she was really working for. Apparently, Mr. Greyson liked to keep his life and his interests private.

Elise smiled at her. "Be sure to check out Bastian's Gallery, then. It's just down the road and they show quite a few of the local artisans."

"Thanks. I'll put them at the top of my list." Even though she'd already planned on going there, she didn't want to hurt Elise's feelings.

Elise nodded and Mel noticed how she was unconsciously rubbing her stomach. Hmm, was the girl coming down with the 'flu, too? Or, was she pregnant? Mel recalled how a fellow waitress, Nicole, had always been rubbing her belly like that when she was expecting. Eying Elise speculatively, Mel wondered if there was a slight thickening of her waist. It was hard to tell, with the apron wrapped around her. Oh well, it really wasn't any of her business.

"Well, I really should get back to work. I hope you enjoy your stay here." Elise headed towards the door.

"I'm sure I will. It's been nice talking to you, Elise." Her stomach chose that moment to rumble again and she pulled a self- deprecating face.

Elise laughed softly, pulling the door shut behind her.

With the server on her way, Melody sat down to enjoy her dinner. As she'd suspected, the food was delicious and soon her plate was empty. With a satisfied sigh, she sat back and checked her watch. It was four thirty. She could walk down to Bastian's Gallery and see what information she could dig up about Ryne Taylor, but she was tired for her nerve wracking journey. Being charmingly casual, while making subtle inquiries seemed like too much of an effort at that moment. A nap was eminently more appealing.

Getting to her feet, Mel heaved her suitcase up onto the bed and dug out an old t- shirt to sleep in. It wasn't fancy, but then again no one was going to be seeing her in it and it packed easily. Shaking the wrinkles out, she took off her robe and pulled the grey t- shirt on. Her skin immediately raised into goose bumps as the cool cotton slid over her body. She shivered and pushed back the duvet, climbing between the crisp sheets and curling up into a shivering ball. Soon her body heat was warming the bed and she felt her muscles relaxing. Stretching out, she sighed and closed her eyes. She'd just take a little nap and then...