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CHAPTER I

A Blinding Storm

“LOOK at those black storm clouds!” Nancy Drew pointed out to her friend, Helen Corning, who was seated beside her in the bow of the small red motorboat.

Nancy, blue-eyed, and with reddish-gold glints in her blond hair, was at the wheel. She gazed anxiously across a long expanse of water to the distant shores of Twin Lakes. The Pinecrest Motel, where the eighteen-year-old girl and her older friend were staying, was almost two miles away on the smaller of the two lakes.

Helen Corning, dark-haired and petite, looked at Nancy with concern. “I think we’re in for a cloudburst,” she said, “and Twin Lakes becomes as rough as the ocean in a storm.” A few minutes later angry waves began to beat against the sides of the boat.

“Are there life preservers aboard, Helen?” Nancy asked.

“No,” Helen answered fearfully.

Nancy set her chin grimly. Although it was only four o’clock in the afternoon, the sky was becoming increasingly dark. The pleasant summer breeze, which had been blowing earlier, was turning into a stiff wind.

“It’s getting harder to keep on course,” Nancy remarked, gripping the wheel more tightly.

As she increased the boat’s speed to the maximum, the craft fairly leaped through the water, dashing spray into the girls’ faces.

“I wonder if there are any raincoats in the lockers,” said Helen.

“Please look,” Nancy requested. “We’ll be drenched by the time we reach the motel dock.”

Luckily Helen found two plastic coats. She slipped into one, then helped Nancy into the other.

A streak of forked lightning cut across the sky, momentarily disclosing a thick mass of ugly clouds. The lightning was followed by an ominous crack of thunder, which caused the girls to jump.

“This is terrible!” Helen wailed.

A moment later the wind began to howl. It struck the boat with a force which made Helen grasp the railing next to her for support. Another dazzling flash of lightning illuminated the sky, and simultaneously a deluge of rain began to descend.

Nancy peered ahead into the dimness. The shore line had vanished and the blinding rain made it impossible for her to see more than a few feet beyond the bow of the boat.

“At least we have half a tank of fuel,” Nancy announced, trying to sound optimistic. “We’ll reach shore soon, I’m sure.” “I wouldn’t bet on that,” Helen said nervously.

A worried expression furrowed the young pilot’s brow. The boat was making little progress against the wind. If anything happened to the motor they would be at the mercy of the waves.

A few minutes later the rain came down even harder. The wind continued to blow a raging gale and the waves. seemed higher.

The girls leaned forward, trying to get their bearings. As a jagged ribbon of lightning illuminated the path ahead, Helen screamed, “About!” Nancy froze with horror. A tremendous log was floating directly into the Path of the motorboat!

Her heart pounding, the young skipper gave the wheel a vicious turn, but not quickly enough. With a splintering crash, the bow of the boat struck the log!

The impact sent Helen sprawling to the deck. Nancy clung to the steering wheel, but was thrown forward violently.

“Helen, are you hurt?” she asked.

“I—I’m all right. Are you?” she stammered, as Nancy helped Helen to her feet. Both girls were breathing heavily.

By now the small boat was listing sharply to starboard. Nancy saw instantly that the log had torn a jagged hole in the side of the craft. Water was pouring in rapidly.

“Quick, Helen!” Nancy ordered tersely. “You bail and I’ll try to stop the leak!”

She sprang forward, tore off her raincoat, and stuffed it into the hole. Helen, meanwhile, found a rusty can and began to bail. Despite their efforts, water continued to pour through the opening.

“Let’s shout for help!” Nancy cried above the wind, but she doubted that there was any other craft on the lake.

The girls cupped their hands to their lips and shouted frantically. Their only answer was the howl of the gale and the steady beat of rain.

“Louder!” Helen urged, and they screamed until they were hoarse.

“It’s no use,” Nancy said at last. “We’ll have to think of something else.”

Just then Nancy saw a giant wave bearing down on them. She met it head on, hoping to ride the crest, but a deluge of water almost inundated the girls. They were flung overboard and the motorboat sank to the bottom of the lake!

An excellent swimmer, Nancy managed to get her head above water almost immediately.

Her first thought was for Helen. What had become of her?

Treading water, Nancy glanced about. Helen was not in sight.

“I must find her!” Nancy thought desperately. “She may have been injured!”

Then, several yards away, Nancy saw a white hand flash above the water. With powerful crawl strokes she plowed through the waves to the spot. The hand had vanished!

Nancy made a neat surface dive. Opening her eyes, she tried to see through the clouded water but to no avail. At last, she surfaced and drew in a deep breath.

Clearing her eyes, Nancy was relieved to spot her friend several feet ahead. Helen was floating on her back. Strong strokes brought Nancy directly behind her friend.

“My arms feel numb,” Helen said weakly. “Guess I hit them on the boat.”

“Don’t worry,” said Nancy. “Just lie still and I’ll tow you to shore.”

Nancy, however, had grave misgivings regarding her ability to accomplish this in the turbulent water. She needed every ounce of strength to swim the distance alone. Could she manage to save Helen? The storm had made the water very cold. Nancy prayed that she would not get a cramp and both girls go down.

“Hold your breath when you see a wave coming,” she instructed Helen, as they started off.

At frequent intervals Nancy shouted for help, although she felt it was wasted energy. On and on they went.

Helen noticed finally that Nancy’s breathing showed the great strain on her. “Save yourself,” she begged. “Go on to shore without me.” “Never!” said Nancy, as a huge wave bore down upon the two girls, smothering them in its impact.

Feebly, Nancy struggled back to the surface with her burden. “One more like that and I’ll be through,” she said to herself.

Just then Nancy thought she detected a voice above the roar of the wind. Was it her imagination or had she really heard someone call?

“Help!” she screamed.

This time there could be no mistake, for she distinguished the words:

“Hold on! I’m coming!”

Through the blinding rain Nancy caught a glimpse of a dark object. A rowboat! If only she could hold out until it reached her!

“Over here!” Nancy cried loudly, waving.

As the boat approached, she fully expected to see it swamped. The boat swept safely toward the two girls, barely avoiding a crash, however. To Nancy’s surprise, there was only one occupant in the boat—a slender, auburn-haired girl of about sixteen.

Twice she tried to bring the boat alongside the swimmers, but failed. The third time, as the craft swept past, Nancy lunged forward and caught the side of it. She dragged Helen along, supporting her with one hand until she, too, secured a hold.

“Can you climb aboard?” their rescuer asked. “I’ll balance the boat while you get in.”

Nancy explained about the submerged motorboat and Helen’s useless arms.

With the strange girl and Nancy working together, they managed to get Helen into the craft. Then Nancy pulled herself over the side.

“Safe!” Helen said in relief. “I don’t know how to thank you,” she told their rescuer.

“Are you both all right?” asked the strange girl. “We’re not far from the beach—otherwise, I couldn’t have heard your cries for help in this wind.” “You were very brave to come for us,” said Nancy. “I’m Nancy Drew and this is Helen Corning.”

The girl at the oars stared at Nancy with keen interest. “I’m Laura Pendleton,” she said. “I read in a newspaper about one of the mysteries you solved. I may need your help some day soon, Nancy.” Without another word Laura bent over her oars again.

“I’ll help you row,” Nancy offered, snatching up an extra oar from the bottom of the rowboat, and wondering what Laura Pendleton’s mystery was.

Using the oar like a paddle, Nancy attempted to keep the boat on course. As she and Laura made some progress against the wind and waves, Helen took new hope.

“I think we’re going to make it!” she said in relief. “Oh!”

A vivid flash of lightning illuminated the water. Directly ahead, through the rain, she and Nancy caught a glimpse of the rocky shore line.

“The rocks. Laura! Be careful or we’ll be dashed against them!” Helen cried out, as the rowboat was tossed and slapped by the crashing waves.

Another zigzag streak of lightning disclosed the shore line more distinctly. A short distance out from the land and directly in front of their boat stood the ugly protruding nose of a jagged boulder!

CHAPTER II

Uninvited Guests

FOR an instant Nancy panicked. Would the girls be able to steer clear of the menacing rocks? A collision seemed unavoidable!

“We’ll be killed!” gasped Helen.

“Row to the left, Laura!” Nancy commanded. “It’s our only chance.”

With a burst of energy the rowers turned the boat and deftly avoided the jagged boulder. An oncoming wave pushed them farther out of danger.

“There’s a cove ahead!” Laura shouted above the wind. “We’ll try to make it.”

In another five minutes they reached the cove. Here the water was comparatively quiet.

“Thank goodness!” Helen murmured. “Oh, you girls are wonderful!”

As Nancy’s oar struck a sand bar, she dropped it and quickly stepped out into water up to her knees. Laura followed and the two girls pulled the boat up onto the beach. Then they helped Helen Corning step onto firm sand.

“How do your arms feel now?” Nancy asked her.

“Better,” Helen replied. “But I’m freezing.” Her teeth were chattering.

Nancy herself was cold. She squinted through the darkness and rain, trying to see where they were. It seemed to be a desolate spot.

“Where are we?” she asked Laura. “Is there some place nearby where we can sit out the storm and get warm?”

“The only place I know,” Laura replied, “is a bungalow I passed a while ago as I was walking along the beach. It’s to our right, secluded among the trees.” “Sounds fine,” Nancy said. “Let’s hurry!”

The three bedraggled girls stumbled along the beach. Water oozed from Laura’s sandals. Nancy and Helen had kicked theirs off in the lake and now slipped and slid in their soggy socks.

Presently the girls reached a small, concealed building, a one-and-a-half-storied weatherbeaten bungalow which stood a short distance from the water’s edge. The upper level nestled into the steep, wooded hillside. Since there was no light inside, Nancy assumed no one was there. She knocked. No answer. Nancy tried to open the door. It was locked.

“Looks as if we’re out of luck,” said Helen.

But Nancy was not easily discouraged, and she knew it was imperative for the girls to get warm. Her father, a well-known lawyer, had trained her to be self-reliant. He frequently handled mystery cases, and Nancy had often helped him in unearthing valuable clues.

In addition, Nancy had solved some mystery cases on her own—one involving an old clock and another a haunted house. There, Nancy had aided its owners to discover a hidden staircase which led to the capture of the mansion’s “ghost.” “I’m sure that the owner of this bungalow will forgive us for going in,” Nancy said.

There was a small window to the right of the door. She tried it and found to her relief that it was unlocked.

“That’s a lucky break,” said Helen, as Nancy opened the window.

Fortunately, it was low enough to the ground for the girls to hoist themselves through easily.

“Whew!” Laura exclaimed, as the wind almost blew them inside. She helped Nancy close the window.

It was pitch dark inside the building. Nancy groped around for a light switch, finally found one, and flicked it on. A small bulb in the ceiling disclosed nothing except two canoes and a wooden bench which stood against one wall.

“Maybe it’s only a boathouse,” said Helen, flopping wearily onto the bench.

The girls noticed a narrow flight of stairs leading to the second floor.

“I wonder,” Nancy mused, “if we might find something up there to wrap around us. Or maybe even some towels to dry ourselves off with. Let’s see.” Laura followed Nancy to the rear of the building. Seeing a light switch for the upper story, Nancy turned it and the two girls climbed the steps. To their surprise, the second floor of the bungalow was furnished with two cots and blankets, a table and chairs, tiny refrigerator, a sink, and a two-burner electric stove.

“We’re in luck!” Nancy exclaimed happily. “Come on up, Helen,” she called.

Laura spotted an open closet in a corner of the room. It was well stocked with food. She held up a can of prepared cocoa.

“Under the circumstances,” she said, “I doubt that the owner of this place would object if we made something warm to drink.” Helen and Nancy agreed. Within a short time the three girls had taken off their wet clothing and were wrapped in blankets. Laura had turned on one burner of the stove and made hot chocolate.

“Umm, this is good,” Nancy said contentedly.

Both she and Helen again thanked Laura profusely for coming to their rescue, and said they had been trying to get back to the Pinecrest MoteL “Are you staying there?” Laura questioned.

“For a week,” Helen replied. “My Aunt June is coming tomorrow. She was supposed to ride up with us Thursday from River Heights where we live, but was detained. She’s going to help design my dress for my marriage to Jim Archer. He’s in Europe now on business for an oil company. When he returns to the States, we’ll be married.” Nancy Drew asked Laura if she, too, was a summer visitor at the resort. When her question met with silence, Nancy was surprised to see tears gathering in Laura’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, Laura,” Nancy said instantly. “You’ve been through a terrible ordeaL You should be resting instead of talking.” “Of course,” Helen agreed.

Laura blinked her eyes, then said soberly, “You don’t understand. You see, my mother passed away a month ago and—” She could not continue.

Nancy impulsively put an arm around Laura’s shoulders. “I do understand,” she said, and told of losing her own mother at the age of three.

Helen added, “Nancy lives with her father, a lawyer, and Hannah Gruen, their housekeeper.”

“I’m an orphan,” Laura stated simply. “My father was in a boat accident nearly six years ago.” She explained that Mr. Pendleton’s sailboat had capsized during a storm. He had been alone and no one had been near enough to save him.

“That’s why,” Laura added, “I knew I had to save whoever was crying for help on the lake today. I love to walk in a storm.” Nancy and Helen felt their hearts go out to the parentless girl. Not only was Laura brave, but also she showed great strength of character.

“With whom are you staying now?” Nancy asked Laura.

The girl looked troubled. “I’m alone at the moment. I checked in at the Montewago Hotel just this morning. But my guardian Jacob Aborn and his wife Marian are to arrive some time this evening. They’re taking me to their summer home at Melrose Lake. I believe it’s near here.” “Yes, it is,” Nancy said.

“Do you know the Aborns?” Helen asked.

Laura said that she did not remember the couple. Her mother had frequently spoken of them, however.

“Mr. Aborn is distantly related to my mother, and it was her request that he become my legal guardian in case of her death.” Laura gave a slight sob, then went on, “But no answer came from our lawyer’s letter to Mr. Aborn, who was traveling.” “How strange!” Nancy remarked.

“Finally I wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Aborn myself at the Melrose Lake address,” Laura said. “The truth was I needed some money as a down payment on tuition at the boarding school I attend.” “And they replied?” Nancy asked.

“Yes. Mr. Aborn told me to come here and he and his wife would meet me.”

Helen interrupted. “Then everything’s settled, so you should be happy.”

The girl shook her head. “I feel I’m not wanted. The letter wasn’t cordial. Oh dear, what shall I do?”

Nancy gave Laura a hug. “You’ll be at school and during vacations you can visit friends. And you have a new friend named Nancy Drew!” “Oh, Nancy, you’re sweet.” Laura smiled for the first time, but in a moment her mood became sad again. “Living that way isn’t like having your own home. Mother and I had such wonderful times together.” She brushed away a few tears.

Nancy wanted to learn more but saw by her waterproof watch that it was six o’clock. Laura would have to hurry off to meet her guardian. The sky was getting lighter and the rain had almost stopped.

“We’d better leave,” she suggested to Helen and Laura.

The girls washed the cups and saucepan, dressed, and put the blankets where they had found them. Before leaving the bungalow, Nancy wrote a note of thanks to the owner, signing it “Three grateful girls.” As they were parting, Laura said, “If my guardians don’t arrive I’ll call you and arrange a date for tomorrow.” “Please do!” Nancy and Helen urged, and waved good-by.

When they reached the Pinecrest Motel, the two girls went at once to talk to Mr. Franklin, the manager. They told him about the sunken motorboat, expressing extreme regret, and assured him that their parents would pay for the craft.

“Don’t worry about that,” the manager said. “We have insurance which takes care of such accidents. I’m just glad you girls are all right.” At that moment a short, thin woman swaggered into the office. Her print dress was mudsplattered and she had lost the heel to one shoe. Her wet, bleached hair clung to her head in an unbecoming fashion.

Ignoring Nancy and Helen, who were still conversing with Mr. Franklin, the woman said bluntly, “Is there anyone here who can change a tire for me? I just had a flat half a mile away.” “I’m afraid not,” Mr. Franklin apologized. “I’m busy in the office and most of the help are off this evening.” “That’s great!” the woman said angrily. “What am I supposed to do—walk to the Montewago Hotel? I’m late already!” Although Nancy thought the stranded motorist was being extremely rude, she, nevertheless, suggested that the woman telephone a nearby service station. “I’m sure they’ll send someone out to help you.” This idea was received with a snort as sparks of annoyance flashed in the woman’s pale-blue eyes. “I’ll think about that!” she said sarcastically, and, turning, limped toward the telephone booth. She banged the door shut behind her.

The three spectators looked after her with disgust and Helen said, “Some people don’t deserve a helping hand.” The irate stranger was still in the booth when Nancy and Helen went off to their room on the ground floor. After a bath and change of clothes the girls felt better. A tasty dinner in the restaurant restored their energy and they played shuffleboard under the floodlights.

The next morning, as the two friends dressed, Helen asked, “Do you think Laura Pendleton will call us?” Helen was putting on Bermuda shorts and a candy-striped blouse.

“I imagine so,” said Nancy, “unless her guardian and his wife took her to Melrose Lake last night.”

“How far is that from here?” Helen inquired.

Nancy consulted a road map. “About twenty-five miles,” she replied. Then, as she was putting on loafers, someone knocked on the door. Nancy went to see who it was.

Laura Pendleton stood in the doorway. She looked very pretty in a becoming pink cotton dress. But the girl’s eyes were shadowed and she seemed highly distressed.

“Oh, Nancy—Helen!” Laura exclaimed. “I just had to come see you as soon as I could!”

“We’re glad you did,” Nancy said. “Come in.” Before she could continue, Laura flung herself on Helen’s bed and started to sob.

“What’s wrong, Laura?” Nancy asked in concern, going over to her.

Slowly the girl sat up and wiped away her tears with a handkerchief. She apologized for her behavior, then said, “I don’t think I’m going to be happy living with the Aboms—at least not with Mrs. Aborn!” Troubled, Nancy asked Laura whether the guardian and his wife had arrived the evening before.

“Only Mrs. Aborn,” Laura replied. “She came to my room about an hour after I left you girls. She was wet and in a very nasty mood. Apparently she’d had a flat tire on the road and was delayed in getting help from some gasoline station.” Nancy and Helen exchanged significant glances. Mrs. Aborn sounded like the woman they had met in Mr. Franklin’s office!

“What does your guardian’s wife look like, Laura?” Helen asked with interest.

“She’s blond, small, and thin. And I guess she was terribly upset about all the trouble she’d had. I understood this and tried to make her comfortable in the extra bedroom, but—” Laura went on to say that Mrs. Aborn, instead of calming down, had become even more unpleasant, blaming the girl for making it necessary for her to drive to Twin Lakes in the bad storm.

“She said that Mary, my mother, had spoiled me and that I was going to have to toe the mark in her home—Oh, what will I do?” Laura asked.

Nancy did not know, but said Mrs. Aborn’s behavior was inexcusable. Then she asked whether Laura’s mother had known the guardian’s wife well.

Instead of replying to the question, Laura said absently, “Mrs. Aborn called my mother ‘Mary.’ But, Nancy, Mother’s name was Marie!” CHAPTER III

Strange Guardians

NANCY was almost certain now that she and Helen had met the unpleasant Mrs. Aborn the night before. The woman’s quarrelsome mood had extended to Laura.

Aloud Helen said, “But don’t forget it’s no fun to have car trouble on a bad night. That is apt to make anyone cross.” “I suppose so,” Laura conceded.

“How was Mrs. Aborn this morning?” Nancy asked.

Laura’s face brightened somewhat as she admitted that the woman had been pleasant and charming. “Mrs. Aborn apologized for her actions last night and said both she and her husband could hardly wait for me to come and live with them.” “I see,” said Nancy, but with inward reservations.

“I guess I’m being foolish to worry.” Laura smiled. “Mrs. Aborn did say she had met Mother only once, so that could explain the name mix-up.” “Where is Mr. Aborn?” Helen asked.

“He’s arriving after lunch today. He was detained on business.”

Nancy was puzzled. The Aborns’ behavior was unusual and thoughtless, she felt.

“Mrs. Aborn is having her hair set at the beauty parlor in the hotel,” Laura explained. “She suggested that I take a taxi here this morning if I felt I had to see you two—which I insisted I did,” Laura said, grinning cheerfully.

Suddenly Nancy smiled. “I’m starved.” She asked Laura to have a second breakfast with her and Helen in the motel restaurant.

“And afterward,” Helen went on, “let’s ask Marty Malone—the girl we met yesterday, Nancy —to make a foursome in tennis.” “Great!” said Laura to both suggestions.

When the three girls stepped outside, Nancy took a deep breath of air. She loved the earthy smell of the forests surrounding the lake resort, particularly the scent of the tall pines.

“What a day!” she exclaimed. Only a few fleecy white clouds broke the clear blue sky.

“The weatherman must be on our side.” Helen chuckled.

A little later Nancy lent Laura tennis clothes, and the girls went to meet Marty Malone. Soon the four were playing a lively set on the courts located behind the motel. Laura and Nancy, who were partners, won. Helen and Marty took the second set.

“You’re a terrific player, Nancy!” Laura exclaimed, as she scored a point during set three.

“Thanks,” Nancy said, as they changed courts for service. “Where did you learn to play so well?”

“Private lessons.” Laura grimaced. “At boarding school. Mother insisted. Before her illness she was a great sportswoman.” When Nancy and Laura had won the third set, Laura called for time out. “I must go back to the hotel now,” she said. “It’s almost noon.” After Laura had changed her clothes, Nancy offered to drive her to the hotel. The three girls piled into Nancy’s blue convertible. Ten minutes later they drew up in front of the spacious Montewago Hotel. It was several stories high and stood a long distance back from the main road. In front stretched a green lawn bordered by beds of multicolored gladioli, dahlias, and giant asters.

“It’s beautiful!” Nancy commented, as Laura stepped from the car.

Helen pointed to an attractive outdoor swimming pool to the right of the hotel. It was filled with bathers. Laura said that there was also a riding stable behind the Montewago.

“There are a lot of families here,” Laura said wistfully. “I wish I could stay.” Then hastily she thanked Nancy for driving her over.

“I loved doing it,” Nancy replied. “I hope we see each other again, Laura.”

“So do I,” Helen added.

Laura snapped her fingers. “I have a wonderful idea! Why don’t you girls come back around three o’clock? You can meet my guardians. And if there’s time, we can join the other young people at a tea dance scheduled for four.” “Fine!” Nancy said at once.

“Come directly to my room.” Laura waved good-by.

Nancy detected a worried expression on Laura’s face, and knew she hated the thought of meeting her strange new guardian.

The young sleuth was so quiet on the return trip that Helen said, “Penny for your thoughts, Nancy.”

Her friend smiled. “I’ve concluded that the Pendletons must have been wealthy.”

“What gives you that idea?”

“It’s very expensive to live year round in New York hotels where Laura lived and she also mentioned boarding school. In addition,” Nancy enumerated, “Laura’s clothes have that simple but expensive look—you know what I mean.” “Yes,” said Helen. “Well, if you’re right, Mr. Aborn will control a great deal of money while he’s managing Laura’s affairs.” “In the case of a minor,” said Nancy, “an inheritance is held in trust until she is twenty-one,

Dad says. That’s five years for Mr. Aborn. I hope he’ll be a wise guardian.”

She turned onto Lakeview Lane, a long, straight road bordered by woods. There were no homes along the way but a sign ahead advertised Sterling’s real-estate office. Suddenly Nancy stopped.

“I think I’ll run in here for a minute,” she said, “and ask who owns that bungalow we helped ourselves to.” She walked into the office, introduced herself to Mr. Sterling, an elderly man, and told him the purpose of her call. The realtor grinned. “Any port in a storm is all right, I’m sure.” He said that the bungalow was owned by one of his clients. He had rented it a week before to a Mrs. Frank Marshall from Pittsburgh.

“I guess she fixed up the second floor,” Mr. Sterling added. “She and her husband plan to use the place week ends. I’ll pass the word along to Mrs. Marshall that you were there.” “I left a note but didn’t sign it,” Nancy said. “Perhaps some time I’ll stop in person and thank the Marshalls.” Returning to the car, she told Helen what she had learned. “Just for fun let’s go out to the bungalow now.”

A quarter of a mile farther on Nancy made a right-hand turn which brought them out on the lake drive. Below them, the girls could see the bungalow they had visited.

Suddenly a black foreign car pulled out of the lane that led down to the bungalow. Gaining speed, the automobile came toward Nancy’s convertible.

“Watch out!” Helen yelled, jerking to attention as the vehicle passed and nearly sideswiped them.

Nancy slowed down and stopped. She looked back at the car which was almost out of sight. “Some drivers don’t deserve a license,” she said. “Do you suppose that was Mr. Marshall?” Helen shrugged. “He wore a straw hat pulled low over his forehead. All I could see was the sleeve of his tan-and-white jacket.” “That’s quite a bit,” Nancy teased, “in so short a time.”

Helen laughed. “Close association with you is making me more observant,” she said.

When the girls reached the Pinecrest Motel, Helen exclaimed, “There’s Aunt June!” While Nancy parked, the dark-haired girl slipped from the convertible and hurried to the porch outside the room they occupied.

“Hello, Helen dear.” The slim, stylishly dressed woman, with softly waved black hair, smiled at her niece.

Helen returned the greeting and gave her father’s younger sister a kiss. “When did you arrive?” she asked. “Have you been waiting long?” “No. I got here half an hour ago.”

The attractive-looking woman was a buyer for a River Heights department store. She told Helen of a retailing problem which had prevented her departure with the girls, then turned to greet Nancy with enthusiasm.

“Isn’t this a lovely spot?” Nancy remarked, and Aunt June Corning agreed that the view of the lake was superb.

After learning that Aunt June had not had lunch, the three went into the tearoom. When they had given their order, Miss Corning said, “I have some slightly bad news for you, Nancy.” “What’s happened?”

“Well, just before I left River Heights, I phoned your housekeeper to see if she had any messages for you. To my surprise Dr. Darby answered. He said that Mrs. Gruen had sprained her ankle early this morning, and she must not walk for a couple of days.” “I’ll call Dad right away and talk to him,” said Nancy with concern.

“Wait!” Aunt June said. “Dr. Darby mentioned that your father left on a business trip today before the accident occurred.” “That means Hannah is all alone,” Nancy said, rising. “I’ll have to go home at once. Will you both excuse me for a minute, please?” She went to a telephone booth and dialed the Drews’ next-door neighbor, Mrs. Gleason. Nancy was relieved to hear that the woman’s sister was taking care of Hannah for the afternoon. The housekeeper was in no pain and resting comfortably.

The young sleuth did some rapid thinking. If she left for River Heights late that afternoon she could still fulfill her promise to Laura to meet her guardian and arrive home in time to cook Hannah’s supper.

“Will you please tell Mrs. Gruen I’ll see her at six o’clock,” Nancy requested, and Mrs.

Gleason agreed to do this.

When Nancy returned to the others, Helen was telling her aunt of the adventure on the lake and Laura Pendleton’s story.

“How dreadful for the girl!” exlaimed Miss Corning. “I feel very sorry for her.”

Nancy now told of her plans to return home, and although Helen and her aunt were disappointed, they agreed that it was the right thing to do.

“But before I leave,” said Nancy, “I want to meet Mr. and Mrs. Aborn.”

After lunch Nancy packed her suitcase, put it in the car, and paid her motel bill. Soon it was time for her and Helen to leave for the Montewago Hotel.

“Are you sure you won’t accompany us, Aunt June?” asked Helen.

Miss Corning shook her head. “I’m a little tired,” she said, “and besides, I must unpack.”

A short while later the two girls entered the Montewago lobby. Nancy made her way directly to the desk and after a brief wait was informed that Miss Pendleton would receive the girls in her suite. An elevator took them to the third floor.

Scarcely had they knocked on the door when Laura opened it. “Oh, I’m so glad you came,” she cried out, smiling with relief.

Laura led the girls into a well-appointed living room with a bedroom on either side. As Nancy stepped inside, she saw a man and a woman seated in chairs near a picture window. In a glance Nancy realized that she and Helen had been right about Mrs. Aborn being the woman they had met the night before. Right now she looked more friendly.

Jacob Aborn arose and smiled graciously. He was a well-built, somewhat stocky man in his early fifties. His face was square, and his small brown eyes were shifty.

When Laura introduced the girls, Mrs. Aborn rushed toward them. “Darlings!” she said, giving Helen and Nancy a butterfly peck on their cheeks. “You’ve been so good to poor Laura.” “Perfect bricks!” Mr. Aborn said gruffly. He extended a hand first to Nancy, then to Helen. “The reason I’m late in getting Laura is that I want everything to be perfect for her arrival at our Melrose Lake house.” Nancy was sure Mrs. Aborn recognized the callers and was embarrassed to admit it. They said nothing. There was an awkward silence until Laura said, “Well, let’s all sit down.” For a few minutes everyone chatted generally, then Helen asked, “When are you leaving, Mr. Aborn?”

“In half an hour,” was the reply. “Laura is tired and I want to get her settled before suppertime.”

Mrs. Aborn broke in, “Yes, the poor child needs a lot of rest and good care.”

Laura Pendleton seemed annoyed to be treated as a child and an invalid. “I’m fine,” she stated defiantly. Turning to Nancy, she said quietly, “I’m afraid that we can’t attend the hotel tea dance.” “That’s all right,” Nancy replied. She told of Hannah’s accident and the fact that she must soon head for home.

“Are you all packed, Laura?” Mr. Aborn asked.

“Yes, except to get Mother’s jewelry from the hotel safe.”

“I’ll do that for you, dear,” Mrs. Aborn volunteered, rising. She smoothed her skirt restlessly.

Laura said, “Thank you, but I must present the receipt in person.” She excused herself, saying she would be right back.

As Laura left the suite, Mr. Aborn turned to the two guests. “I wish Marie Pendleton had been a little more cautious with her inheritance from her husband,” he confided.

“What do you mean?” Nancy asked.

“Laura is practically penniless,” her guardian explained. “Mrs. Pendleton’s illness and the way she lived took almost all her funds.” Nancy and Helen were surprised and dismayed to hear this.

“It doesn’t matter, though,” Mrs. Aborn said. “We have ample means to provide for Laura. She’ll have everything she needs.” Nancy was confused by the woman’s seemingly dual personality. She could be crude as on the evening before, or sweet as she appeared now. Perhaps, at heart, she meant well. Nancy hoped so for Laura’s sake, but a strange feeling of distrust persisted.

When Laura returned, Helen and Nancy said they must be on their way. The friends shook hands.

“We never can thank you enough, Laura, for coming to our rescue yesterday,” Helen said gratefully.

“That’s right,” Nancy agreed. “If you hadn’t come along at that moment we’d probably be at the bottom of the lake!” Laura shuddered. “Oh, I’m sure you would have reached shore some way! But I am glad I could help and it’s been such fun knowing you. I hope you’ll come to see me while I’m at Melrose Lake.” “We will,” Nancy promised. “What is your address there?”

“Anyone can direct you to my house,” Mr. Aborn said heartily. “It’s well known in that section.”

His wife tapped her foot on the floor. “Jacob, it’s getting late,” she hinted.

Nancy and Helen hastily bade the Aborns good-by and walked toward the door of the suite with Laura. Suddenly Helen turned around.

“It’s lucky you brought two cars!” she called back. “Laura has a lot of luggage.”

Without another word, Helen gave Laura a quick kiss and walked into the corridor. Nancy followed a moment later.

“Why did you say that?” Nancy questioned Helen as they rode down in the elevator.

The dark-haired girl signaled for silence. There were several other people in the car. When they stepped out into the lobby Nancy repeated her question.

Helen grabbed her chum’s arm excitedly. “I couldn’t resist it!” she exclaimed. “Jacob Aborn was the driver in the tan-and-white sports jacket I saw coming out of the road by the bungalow this morning! The driver of the black foreign car!” CHAPTER IV

The Tree Crash

IF HELEN was right about Mr. Aborn’s being the driver of the foreign car, then it should be in the hotel parking lot, Nancy thought.

“Let’s take a look,” she suggested.

The girls walked to the rear of the hotel where Nancy had left her own convertible. They scouted the lot. There was no sign of a black foreign car. Helen asked the attendant if one had been driven in that day. The man said no.

Helen was puzzled. “I was so sure I was right.”

“You still could be,” said Nancy. “The car may be parked somewhere else. Mrs. Aborn may have picked up her husband at some other point.” Puzzled, she and Helen climbed into the convertible and Nancy started the engine. As she drove back to the Pinecrest Motel, Helen remarked: “I don’t care for either Mr. or Mrs. Aborn. Their friendliness seems forced, and their promises don’t ring true.” “I agree.” Nancy nodded. “By the way, did you notice how Laura’s guardian went out of his way to tell us she was penniless? And we were total strangers.” “I certainly did,” Helen replied. “It was in very bad taste, I’d say.”

“As soon as Hannah’s ankle is better,” Nancy declared, “I’m coming back here. Let’s pay

Laura a visit together at Melrose Lake. I feel very uneasy about her.”

“A wonderful idea!” Helen exclaimed.

When they reached the motel, she got out. “I hope Hannah’s foot improves quickly,” she said, and waved Nancy out of sight.

A minute later Nancy was on the main highway which paralleled Twin Lakes for some distance. Presently, as she left the lake area, Nancy cast a speculative glance toward the sky. Did she imagine it or was it beginning to cloud over?

Nancy glanced at the speedometer. She was nearly halfway to River Heights. “Maybe I can get home before the storm breaks,” she told herself.

A quarter of a mile farther on Nancy saw an obstruction in the road and brought the convertible to a halt. A huge sign read: DETOUR. BRIDGE OUT. TAKE MELROSE LAKE ROAD. An arrow pointed to the left.

“Just when I’m in a hurry!” Nancy fumed, knowing she would have to go miles out of her way before reaching the River Heights road.

Another anxious glance at the sky told her there was no time to be lost. Already huge storm clouds were appearing.

“I’ll be caught in another cloudburst like the one on the lake,” she thought.

Hastily she headed the car down the Melrose Lake detour, a narrow, rutty road bordered with tall pines and thick shrubbery. Nancy was forced to reduce her speed to ten miles an hour, and even then it seemed as though the car would shake to pieces.

Within a few minutes it grew so dark that Nancy snapped on the headlights. Giant raindrops began to strike the windshield. In a short time they were followed by a blinding downpour, and the deep ruts in the road filled up like miniature streams.

“I’m in for it now,” Nancy groaned, as the car crept up a hill.

Before she could reach a level stretch on the other side of the hill, the storm broke in all its fury. Trees along the roadside twisted and bent before the onslaughts of the rushing wind.

It was difficult for Nancy to see the road ahead. She crawled along, endeavoring to keep the convertible’s wheels out of deep ruts. As she swerved to avoid a particularly large puddle, a blinding tongue of lightning streaked directly in front of the car.

There was a flash of fire and simultaneously a deafening roar. For an instant, Nancy thought the car had been struck.

Almost blinded, the girl jammed on the brakes in time to hear a splintering, ripping noise. Before her horrified eyes a pine tree fell earthward. The convertible seemed to be directly in its line of fall!

“Oh!” Nancy gasped, as the tree missed her car by inches, landing directly in front of it.

Nancy felt as though she were frozen in her seat. How closely she had escaped possible death! When she was breathing normally again, Nancy ruefully surveyed the tree which blocked the road. What was she to do?

“I can’t go back because the bridge is out,” she told herself. “And there probably isn’t anyone within miles of this place.” She suddenly realized she had not seen another car going in either direction.

As Nancy continued to gaze at the fallen tree, she decided it could be moved by two people.

“Too bad I’m not twins,” she thought. “I wonder how long it will be before someone comes past here.”

Finally Nancy decided to try pulling the tree aside. She reached in the back seat for plastic boots and a raincoat with a hood. After putting these on, she stepped outside.

Gingerly picking her way through the mud and heavy rain, she walked to the fallen pine. She grasped the branches and tugged with all her might. The tree did not budge. Nancy next tried rolling it. This, too, she found was impossible.

“Oh, this is maddening,” she thought, feeling completely frustrated.

As another low roll of thunder broke the quietness of the woods, Nancy was delighted to see headlights approaching. A moment later a small jeep pulled up behind her car.

The driver’s door opened and a young man’s voice said, “Hello there! Having trouble?”

“I sure am,” said Nancy, as he walked toward her and stood outlined in the convertible’s headlights. He appeared to be about seventeen, had dark hair, and twinkling eyes. Quickly Nancy explained about the fallen tree.

“Wow! You were lucky that it missed you!” the boy cried, then added, “It will be easy for the three of us to move the tree.” “Three?” Nancy questioned.

He laughed. “My sister’s in the jeep,” he explained, then called out, “Come on out, Cath!”

They were joined by a pretty girl, whom Nancy guessed to be fourteen years old. Introductions were exchanged. The brother and sister were Jim and Cathy Donnell. They lived off the next main highway and were returning home from visiting friends.

“I’m glad we came by,” Cathy said. “There’s only one house on this road and the people haven’t moved in yet for the summer.” After Jim had pulled some tangled pine branches away from the convertible, he and the two girls were able to lift the trunk. Little by little they moved the tree far enough aside so that the cars could drive ahead.

“I’ll report this to the highway patrol when we get home,” said Jim.

“Thanks so much for your help,” Nancy told the brother and sister. “By the way, do you know a Mr. and Mrs. Aborn who live at Melrose Lake?” “We certainly do,” said Cathy. “They’re the ones whose house is on this route. It’s a lovely place, with a lane leading to the house. You passed it about a mile back. The Aborns just bought the place.” “It’s a small world,” Nancy observed. She told the Donnells, however, that they were wrong about the Aborns not being at their home, and explained about meeting the couple and Laura Pendleton at Twin Lakes.

Nancy tried to pull the fallen tree aside

“That’s funny,” said Jim. He explained that his parents had known the Aborns for years. “They used to have a place on the other side of the larger lake, and bought this new house only a month ago. They mentioned that Laura Pendleton was coming to visit them, but said they were taking an extensive trip first.” “I see,” said Nancy, thinking, “Another strange angle to this thing!” Aloud she asked, “Is Mrs.

Aborn a blond-haired woman, rather small and slight, Cathy?”

“Yes.”

Jim said that he and Cathy must say good-by. Their parents would be worried if they did not arrive home soon.

“We’ll tell Mother and Dad about the Aborns and Laura,” said Jim. “We’re all keen to meet

Laura. The Aborns think she must be tops!”

“And we want to introduce Laura to our friends here at the lake,” Cathy added.

“Grand!” Nancy said enthusiastically. “Laura has had a pretty sad time recently. She needs friends.”

The three said good-by and got into their own cars. As Nancy drove on, she kept mulling over the Aborn-Pendleton enigma. She inferred from the Donnells’ remarks that the man and his wife were very acceptable people. But Nancy certainly had not received this impression of them.

“I can’t wait to meet them again,” she thought, “and see how they’re treating Laura.”

By the time Nancy reached the end of the detour, the storm was over. A little later she turned into the Drews’ driveway and parked near the front porch of the large red-brick house. She climbed from the car and made a dash for the porch with her suitcase.

As she inserted her key in the lock and pushed the front door open, a voice called out from the living room, “Nancy? Is that you?” “Yes, Hannah. Be right in.”

Nancy took off her raincoat and boots and put them in the vestibule closet. Then she hurried into the living room and hugged the motherly-looking woman, who was reclining on the sofa.

“Hannah! I’m so sorry about your ankle. How are you feeling?”

A worried expression faded from the housekeeper’s face as she said, “I’m fine, now that you’re home. This storm has been dreadful and I was concerned about you being on the road. Helen phoned that you were on your way.” Nancy told of the fallen tree at Melrose Lake, and how it had taken her longer than she had planned to make the trip.

“Goodness!” the housekeeper exclaimed. Then she smiled. “Nancy, you’re like a cat with nine lives, the way you so often just miss being injured.” Nancy laughed. Then, becoming serious, she asked, “Where did Dad go?”

“To the state capital,” Hannah replied, “and that reminds me, dear—you’re to call Mr. Drew at eight tonight—” She gave Nancy a slip of paper with a telephone number on it.

“Did he say what he wanted?” Nancy inquired.

A look of concern appeared on Hannah’s face as she said, “Mr. Drew wishes you to help him with an embezzlement case he’s investigating!”

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