Disclaimer: I do not own The Hardy Boys and am not making any money from this story. I do, however, own all of the original characters presented within this story.

This story can be read as a stand-alone. In reality, it follows the universe created in "Meet Me at Midnight" and Joe's story in "Duty and Honor." You do not have to read those stories in order to understand this one. Joe met Vanessa in "Meet Me at Midnight" and they became boyfriend/girlfriend. This story expands upon their relationship and where it's headed.

Warning: My stories tend to be more adult oriented, a bit more dark and gritty. There will be some violence (mild, in my opinion, but tastes differ) and references to violence.

Wendylouwho10 was kind enough to beta the first 19 chapters. Thanks, Wendy! I held back the final chapters so as to surprise her. ;)

Chapter One

Light rain pelted the windshield and Vanessa flipped on the windshield wipers. She was headed to her Aunt Alice's cabin. Aunt Alice, aged seventy-three, rented it out nowadays. Usually, it was booked solid this time of year, mid December, but a rare cancellation had given Vanessa the opportunity to strike. She'd ask to use the cabin for the week and Aunt Alice had agreed. She'd even said Vanessa and boyfriend, Joe, could stay there for free.

Vanessa had been ecstatic. She'd always loved the cabin in the mountains in upper state New York. The cabin had been a big part of her childhood. She'd spent many summers there fishing, swimming, hiking, and camping.

Every year, Aunt Alice and Uncle Nate (now passed away) had hosted a huge, bountiful Fourth of July party at the cabin. Bender family members had come from far and wide to enjoy the yearly event. People would set up tents on the spacious property and camp out. Less hardy souls rented rooms in town. Aunt Alice provided the food on the Fourth – traditional American fare – while Uncle Nate organized games and contests. There were foot races, swimming contests, archery competitions, and lots of hide and seek for the little ones.

Aww, what glorious days. Vanessa exhaled a heartfelt sigh. She missed those fun-filled summers. Three weeks at the cabin in the summer was something she had looked forward to every year. School couldn't end soon enough. It was pure torture getting through June. The wait for July first, the day to head for the cabin, was practically unbearable.

Vanessa would count the weeks, the days, and finally the hours. When the time to leave finally arrived, Vanessa was a bundle of anxious energy.

She laughed at herself. Funny how some places had such a strong hold on a person.

As much as Vanessa relished summers at the cabin, she loved Christmas even more. Unfortunately, then the visit was short. Relatives came for only a few days and no one camped on the property. Way too cold in December for that. Everyone got hotel rooms in town which, of course, meant people didn't stay as long.

Still, it was worth it to see the cabin all done up for Christmas. Uncle Nate had lights around every window. White lights were twirled around the porch railing and on the front door hung the biggest, most fragrant wreath. Uncle Nate made it from pine boughs found right on his property. He even strung lights into the wreath.

That wreath was a work of art. A work of love, Uncle Nate would say when people commented on the wreath's beauty.

Through the front window, one could glimpse a majestic, pine tree. It was also found on the property and felled by Uncle Nate. Aunt Alice would deck the tree with every Christmas ornament she owned, and she owned plenty.

Vanessa chuckled. It must have taken Aunt Alice weeks to decorate the tree and cabin and it was all worth it.

Vanessa was always anxious to get inside. Inside, the aroma of roasting ham, pumpkin pie, and other delectable foodstuffs awaited. Vanessa smiled at the memory. Such lovely, wonderful memories. They filled her with happiness.

This year she would build new memories with Joe. They'd been dating for over seven months and things were going great. They both lived and worked in Illinois. She worked for an insurance company. He co-owned a detective agency with his brother, Frank, and Frank's girlfriend Nancy.

Vanessa and Joe had hit it off the minute they'd met. She'd felt the attraction between them that first day. The way he'd looked at her with those sky blue eyes had made her heart melt. He was the real deal; ruggedly handsome and solidly built. His wavy, blond hair was kept short, military style.

Initially, Vanessa had been leery of Joe's line of work. His detective job was dangerous. She'd learned that right-away, but she also learned that Joe knew how to handle himself. He was ex-Army, a military police sergeant and had completed two tours in Afghanistan. Over there, he'd faced danger almost every day. Some of the things he'd seen she couldn't even begin to imagine and didn't want to. But he knew how to take care of himself and others. The Army had taught him the skills and given him the necessary training.

When Joe and Vanessa met, he was as world-weary as she was. A failed marriage had forced her to move to Illinois where she took refuge, and a job, at her aunt's insurance company. Looking back, Vanessa thanked the heavens for that move. Without it she would never have met Joe.

His past was not care-free either. He'd lost a girlfriend to a car bomb when he was nineteen. Although that was ten years ago, Vanessa wasn't sure Joe's wounds were completely healed. Grief and vengeance had driven him to join the Army where he could vent some of that anger on the bad guys of the world. From what he'd told her, he'd vented a lot of anger in Afghanistan.

Although he'd been an MP, he'd spent considerable time in combat. It was the nature of the war. No one, and nothing, could be trusted. She shuddered at the very thought of entering buildings not knowing if friendlies or enemies lurked inside. Not to mention IEDs (improvised explosive devices). She admired Joe's strength and commitment though. He'd served his country with pride and honor. He'd done what he could to make this world a safer place. In her book, he was a hero.

Big, fat snowflakes hit the windshield and brought her attention back to the road. She leaned forward and peered at the sky. Dark, ominous clouds scudded about the tree tops. A storm was on the way. She needed to hurry.

She pulled into the parking lot of the only real estate agency in Pine Crest. With less than 2,000 citizens, one agency was all Pine Crest needed.

Vanessa hurried into the office, the hood of her parka over her head. The snowflakes were coming down harder now. They were beautiful, but menacing. Roads would start to ice. She still had to hit the grocery store and get to the cabin. Of course, there was Joe. Would the roads remain passable? Would he be able to make it to the cabin?

She would be absolutely crushed if he didn't make it.

She would call him after she bought groceries. Here in town she could get cell service. On the mountain it was iffy at best.

Real Estate Agent Lilly May looked up at the tall, statuesque blonde who entered her office. Lilly saw pale blue eyes, with a hint of worry in them.

Lilly May rose from behind her desk. "Can I help you, miss?"

"Yes." Vanessa smiled at Lilly.

Lilly May was forty-five, well-groomed and the epitome of good manners. She extended a hand to the young woman.

Vanessa took the proffered hand and shook it gently. "I'm Vanessa Bender. My aunt owns a cabin on Bear Mountain."

"Oh yes. I'm been expecting you Miss Bender. Alice called me last week. You're to have the cabin for one week, rent-free." Lilly grinned. "I have all the paperwork ready. You just have to sign agreeing that you are staying there for one week and will be responsible for any damages."

Lilly looked Vanessa over. "I doubt there'll be any damages. Just a formality really. Please, have a seat." Lilly gestured at two comfortable seats in front of her desk.

Vanessa took a seat and unzipped her parka while Lilly dug in a filing cabinet.

"Looks like a storm's on the way," Vanessa said.

Lilly noted the concern in the young woman's voice. "It does. Last night's weather forecast said we could get several inches of snow by midnight. Are you going straight up the mountain to the cabin?"

"Groceries first and then the cabin."

"Don't delay too long," Lilly warned. "The roads on Bear Mountain can get pretty icy and with those steep drop offs …"

"Yes, I know all about them." Vanessa knew well the dangers of Bear Mountain. Icy roads and sheer cliffs. She definitely had to call Joe and warn him.

"Here you go." Lilly pushed several papers across the desk. "Just sign here and here." She pointed with a blue ink pen and then handed it to Vanessa.

A red X marked each spot where Vanessa's signature was required. She signed and Lilly held up a set of keys.

"This one opens the front door. This one the back. The other is for the garage. The garage is filled to the rafters with old junk according to Alice. No one's to use the garage without her consent." Lilly looked at Vanessa expectantly.

"I don't plan on using the garage." It had never crossed Vanessa's mind to peek into the garage. Right now, all she wanted were the keys. Time was of the essence and she felt it slipping away second by tedious second.

Lilly handed over the keys. Vanessa slipped them into her purse and rose to leave.

Lilly held out a business card. "My card. If you have any questions or concerns, don't hesitate to call. My office number, and home number, are on the card."

"Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure." Vanessa turned and fled the office.

She darted through thick snowflakes and into the relative comfort of her rental car. She prayed the snow would ease off until Joe arrived. Intuition told her she would need more than prayers.

I plan on posting a chapter every other day in November. In December I might post every day. I think I'll have to. The goal is to finish posting this story before Christmas. Yes, this story is complete. I started it last year in October and have worked on it throughout this year. And for those wondering about "Murder by the Sea," yes, I am completing that story and will start posting the final chapters in March/April 2017.