Family Ties

I am really excited about my new series featuring the Hathaway Sisters. It has mystery, romance, multilayered family dynamics, and a story with heart. For a preview of book 1 continue on to the end after the introduction to the series.

Family Ties all began with Denver and Dixie Hathaway, a hippie couple who met in 1962. They married and had a daughter Daisy, who settled down with a man named Jagger and had five daughters: Hayden, Harper, Haley, Harlow, and Haven. Family ties is a series about the Hathaway sisters, each who will stumble into their own mystery on the way to their own family connection.

 

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Book 1 in the series features Harper Hathaway, a former member of the armed services who is on her way home to Moosehead Minnesota after suffering a personal tragedy. Her plans to enjoy a relaxing road trip are upended when a puppy runs onto the road alerting her to a vehicle which had been in an accident but is not visible from the road. Her attempt to avoid hitting the puppy lands her in the ditch herself. Unharmed she tries to help the occupants of the vehicle which include a man, a woman, and a baby. The driver of the vehicle demands that she hide the baby who, as it turns out, is being sought by powerful men intent on harming her. In order to protect the baby, and find a way out of the mess she has gotten herself into, Harper calls her old friend Ben Holiday, a former cop and current PI, who hooks her up with his friend Michael Maddox, a computer genius with a particular skill set that will aide Harper in her quest to bring the baby to safety.

With the men who are searching for the baby on their heels, Harper and Michael set off across the country with the baby and the puppy, and a desire in their hearts, to find the answers they’ll need to ensure the safety of the child.

 

Preview of Harper:

Harper Hathaway glanced at the San Francisco skyline as it faded into the distance, with the conviction that of all the Hathaway sisters, she was going to go down in family history as having made the biggest mess of her life. Not that making a mess of her life had been what she’d set out to do fourteen years ago when she’d fled her hometown of Moosehead Minnesota feeling lost and alone in a sea of family and friends. She’d recently graduated high school and had been expected to come up with a plan as to what to do with her life, which at the time seemed pretty overwhelming. In spite of a family who loved her, a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, and a grade point average which would have landed her a spot in most any college in the country, she’d had absolutely no idea who or what she wanted to be. So after weeks of sleepless nights and angst filled days, she’d hitched her wagon to the first opportunity she stumbled upon, and joined the Army after a recruiter made a cold call to a young woman who actually was looking for a life of meaningful adventure in addition to a career.

Looking back things had worked out okay. At least for a time. Yes she’d missed her family and those first years overseas were some of the hardest she’d ever known, but she seemed to have a skill set and personality type that fit well with the lifestyle presented to her, and she’d risen through the ranks at a speed that at times had left her downright dizzy. When it time came to re-up after her first tour, she hadn’t even considered other options, and happily signed on the dotted line. By the time her second contract was complete she was on the fast track to a career with the Special Forces, but by the time she’d completed her third contract, she’d seen enough death and destruction to last a lifetime. She knew in her heart she was ready to try something different and had considered going home to Moosehead, but then she met Eric Palmer, a scuba diving instructor with a taste for treasure hunting, a bit of wanderlust, and big dreams for the future. Making a decision to follow the man and his passion, she moved to San Diego, became a certified scuba diver, and then followed Eric from one exotic location to the next. Not only did they travel the world in search of the ultimate dive site but they joined salvage operations along the way. For a brief period in time, she’d really had it all: An exciting life that challenged her both physically and intellectually, a fiancé on the same life path that she had grown to love, and a bright future limited only by what she could imagine. Then six months ago her perfect world came tumbling down when her fiancé was killed while diving on a wreck in Cozumel and she’d lost her will to continue down the path they’d chosen to walk together. So one hundred and sixty nine months, two weeks, and eight days after she’d left her home in pursuit of a new life, she found herself returning to Minnesota the same lost and alone mess she was on the day she’d left.

As she veered from the freeway onto the narrow coastal highway which would take her north, she felt her mood lighten. As a teen she’d felt stifled in such a small town but now that her life was such a mess she realized that after fourteen years out in the world, a large farm perched on a private lake seemed like the optimal place to regroup and heal. As she navigated the narrow winding road that hugged the rocky shoreline, she tried not to think about what she had lost. She knew in her heart if she was going to ever be able to move forward she had to find a way to stop looking back at what might have been.

After she had driven for several hours, the open coastline gave way to the dense forest of the redwoods. Without the crashing waves to set the mood, her mind began to wander and the fatigue she had been holding at bay began to creep into her consciousness. Deciding that what she really needed was a diversion she reached forward to switch on the radio. She was momentarily distracted as she searched for a station which is probably why she didn’t see the dog that darted onto the road until a split second before it ran in front of her. She slammed on her breaks and turned the wheel hard to the left. She somehow managed to guide the vehicle to a stop but not before she lost control of the vehicle and slid into the drainage ditch that bordered the road. Her heart pounded a mile a minute by the time she came to a full stop.

“Oh god.” she put her hand over her chest. She wasn’t hurt, and while the car was going to need to be towed, she didn’t think it was badly damaged. She put her hand on the latch and opened the driver’s side door. Taking a deep breath to steady shaky knees, she slowly climbed out. She was pretty sure she was fine but the dog… Oh god the dog. She looked around the area and didn’t see a dog injured or otherwise. She didn’t think she’d hit him. She slowly made her way up the embankment and looked around. She couldn’t see the dog but after a moment she heard him whimpering from the other side of the road. The sun had set and the sky was beginning to grow dim so she pulled on her jacket, grabbed the flashlight she kept for emergencies, and jogged across the road. “Are you okay?”

The yellow Labrador, which was really no more than a puppy, continued to whine so she walked slowly forward. “I won’t hurt you,” she said in a soft voice. “I just want to help.” The pup didn’t move but he didn’t attack either so she took a few more steps. Not only had she grown up on a farm, but her mother was a veterinarian. She’d lived around animals her entire life and generally knew how to calm them. She could see that this one was scared but he also seemed to want her to help.

“I’m going to come closer,” she said in a soft voice.

The dog watched her warily but didn’t move toward her. When she was within a few feet of him he moved away. She took a few more steps. He moved a few of his own. She supposed at some point he must have decided that she was going to follow since he limped down the embankment and into the dense forest. He hadn’t gone far when she noticed something blue. A car. The dog had led her to a car which must have veered off the road. There was still steam coming from the engine compartment so she had to assume the accident had recently occurred.

She made her way toward the car as fast as the steep terrain would allow slipping only once on the muddy ground. When she reached the car she headed directly to the open driver’s side door and looked inside. There was a man in the driver’s seat with a large gash on his head who was still buckled in. He appeared to be unconscious. She looked into the interior of the vehicle to find a woman in the passenger seat. She likewise appeared to be unconscious. Taking a quick peek into the rear of the vehicle she noticed a baby strapped into a car seat.

“A baby,” she said a little too loudly. She must have startled the dog since he began to bark aggressively. “It’s okay,” she said in a gentler voice. “I’m going to go around to the back and open the door so she can see what needs to be done. Okay?”

The dog stopped barking but didn’t move from the position he had taken up near the open driver’s side door. When she arrived at the back door Harper assured the dog once again that he could trust her. She opened the door and gently ran her hands over the baby who was awake and appeared to be unharmed. She unstrapped the car seat, lifted the baby out, and cradled the whimpering infant it in her arms. “It’s okay. I have you now. It’s okay. I’m going to get help.”

She walked back around to the front of the vehicle to check on the driver. She felt for a pulse and he opened his eyes. “The baby,” he gasped. “You need to hide the baby.”

“Hide the baby?”

“Hurry. You must leave now. Don’t trust anyone.”

She froze in indecision. The man had lost a lot of blood. She had to wonder if he was delirious. She looked toward the woman in the passenger seat. “The baby’s mother?”

The man nodded. “Dead. Now hurry. Take the diaper bag. It is up to you to keep the baby safe.”

She looked down at the infant in her arms. He or she appeared to have drifted off. She didn’t feel right about leaving the man and woman in the car and was trying to make up her mind about the options available to her, when she heard another car on the road. She wasn’t sure why she made the decision to hide. Instinct she supposed. One minute she was contemplating the idea of calling 911, and the next she was heading toward the cover of the trees with the baby cradled snuggly in her arms and the long handle of the diaper bag draped over her shoulder. The puppy who seemed to have settled down now that she had the baby, trailed along behind her.

After a few minutes of searching for an adequate hiding space, she found an outcropping of rocks, which combined with the darkening sky, seemed to provide a sufficient amount of cover. She tightened one arm around the baby, caressed the puppy with the other, crouched down as low as she could manage, and watched as a man in a highway patrol uniform hiked down the embankment, walked over to the car, said something to the driver, took out a gun, and shot him. The pup began to growl. She shushed him and then watched as the patrolman walked around the vehicle and shot the woman in the passenger seat, although, according to the driver of the vehicle, she’d already been dead. The accident didn’t appear to have been serious enough to have been responsible for the woman’s death, so Harper had to assume she had died prior to the accident from an injury or illness. After he shot the woman in the passenger seat, the officer opened the back door and stuck a head inside. She held her breath when she realized that he must have been looking for the baby. After rooting around in the rear of the vehicle for a moment, he took several steps away from the vehicle and looked around the area.

Her heart pounded as she continued to crouch behind the rocks calming the puppy and whispering to the baby. It was a cold day in February and the blanket that someone had wrapped the baby in really wasn’t all that heavy so she unzipped her jacket, slipped the baby inside, then scrunched down even smaller and waited. The puppy climbed into her lap providing an extra layer of warmth for the baby as the man in the uniform continued to search the immediate area. The tall thin man with dark hair and a crooked nose, took several steps in her direction, pausing only a few yards from the rocks where they were hiding. If not for her military training she was certain she would have screamed or fainted or both. The baby let out a tiny cry so she tightened her arms around the bundle she’d nestled to her chest and prayed the puppy would remain quiet and the baby would go back to sleep.

After a few minutes the man headed back toward the vehicle for a second look, he opened both the trunk and the engine compartment, rooted around, circled back toward them, and then pulled out his phone and spoke in a deep voice. “Agent Beaverton is dead as is the witness. The baby is gone and there is no sign of the ledger. There is a car in the ditch just off the road. I assume that the driver of the car found our target and went for help. I’m going to see if there is ID inside the vehicle. The driver can’t have gotten far.”

Harper watched as the man turned and headed back toward the road. After he’d driven away, she scooted out from behind the rocks and let out a long breath of relief before the puppy, baby, and she slowly made their way back toward her car. It was almost completely dark by this point and getting colder by the minute. She knew she needed to get help but her car was disabled, and a quick search of her vehicle confirmed that the man who had shot the occupants of the vehicle carrying the baby had taken her purse and her phone, as well as her vehicle registration.

“Okay this can’t be good,” she mumbled. She supposed it made sense to stay with the vehicle. Someone would come along eventually. Of course the man who had been with the baby said not to trust anyone and it had been a man in a highway patrolman’s uniform who had shot and killed him in cold blood. Maybe waiting with the car wasn’t the best idea. She’d been heading toward a small town she knew was just north of her position when the accident had occurred. The town was still quite a ways off but she’d driven this road before and she seemed to remember a rundown little motel attached to a gas station and a small eatery not all that far up the road. Of course staying in a motel so close to the spot where her car had been disabled might not be the smartest thing to do given the fact that there was at least one man she knew of looking for the baby she’d tucked beneath her jacket. Still, staying with the car was probably the worst thing she could do at this point, so she began to walk along the side of the road with the baby in her arms and the puppy trailing along beside her. The baby hadn’t been very active since she’d plucked it from its car seat. This, she had to admit, worried her. Had it been hurt in the accident in spite of the lack of blood? He or she had been strapped into a high quality infant car carrier which appeared to have shielded the tiny thing from the worst of the impact, but she supposed the infant could have sustained internal injuries. She really didn’t have a lot of options at this point so she hiked the diaper bag more firmly over her shoulder and continued to walk, praying all the while, that a solution to her current dilemma would present itself before it was too late.

“Closed for the season.” she groaned as she read the sign nailed to the front of the motel, gas station, and eatery, she’d remembered. It had taken her forty minutes of steady walking to arrive at this point and she didn’t remember there being another town for a good twenty to thirty miles. She needed to get the baby inside and out of the cold so making a quick decision, she made her way over to the small motel and used the multi-use knife she always kept in her pocket to break into one of the rooms furthest away from the road. Once the puppy, baby and she were inside, she tried the lights, but the electricity had been turned off. She used the flashlight she still had in her pocket to provide at least a modicum of light. She unzipped her jacket, removed the bundled up baby, and laid it on the bed. The puppy jumped up onto the bed and laid down next to it.

“Hey sweetie, how are you doing?” She cooed to the child.

The baby opened its eyes.

“I know that you are probably wet and hungry. Hopefully there will be supplies in the bag to take care of both those problems.”

She slid the diaper bag off her shoulder and then emptied it onto the bed. A package of diapers, baby wipes, a can of powdered formula, several bottles of purified water, a couple of pairs of warm pajamas, and a thumb drive? Everything made sense except the thumb drive. She slipped the drive into her pocket, and then unwrapped the baby from the blanket. She took off the wet diaper to find that her traveling companion was a little girl. She quickly changed the baby’s diaper, then dressed her in the warmest pajama’s she could find. Once she was clean and dry, she wrapped her in the blanket she’d found her in and then pulled the blanket from the bed over her as well. Harper really had no way of knowing when the baby had last been fed, but her tiny little whimper seemed like a feed me sort of whimper, so she read the instructions on the can of formula, mixed up a bottle, then held it to the baby’s lips. She took a single suck then began to cry. The bottle was ice cold and having had three younger sisters she did remember that babies liked to have their bottle heated. She made sure the baby was tucked securely onto the bed then went into the bathroom praying for hot water. Just because the electricity was off that didn’t mean the gas was off as well.

She held her breath as she turned on the faucet. The water was ice cold at first but after a moment it did begin to warm up. She filled the basin with hot water then held the bottle in the water until the formula felt warm. She made her way back to the bed, arranged the pillows against the headboard, and then leaned into them as she cradled the baby in her arms. Thankfully she devoured the bottle as the puppy snuggled in next to them and fell fast asleep.

“So what on earth have you gotten yourself into?” She asked the tiny baby as she suckled the bottle. “You seem a little young to have made enemies, yet there do seem to be some really bad people after you.” She remembered the man in the uniform. “Or at least a really bad man.” She wondered if the man who shot the accident survivor was a dirty cop or if he was simply an assassin who had stolen a uniform. The man who had been traveling with the baby had told her not to trust anyone, which led her to believe that he knew that whomever was after the baby had connections in high places.

Once the baby fell asleep, she tucked her under the covers and then got up and took a look around the room. She needed a plan that included something other than just sitting around waiting for the dirty cop to find them. She wasn’t even sure it was safe to stay in the room until morning, although taking the baby out into the chilly night air wasn’t really an option either, so she supposed her best bet at this point was to hunker in and wait for sunrise. The question was, what then?

She didn’t have her phone, ID, wallet, credit cards, or bank card. The man in the car had said to trust no one, but she did have people in her life she knew she could trust. Her mother, grandmother, and four sisters would all help her in a minute, but she didn’t want to drag any of them into whatever was going on until she figured out exactly what was going on. She knew the man in the CHP uniform had taken her registration but the address on the registration was that of her old apartment in San Diego. Still, the man did have her name and she was afraid that once the man with the gun figured out who she was, he would be able to backtrack and find her family in Minnesota so perhaps she should warn them. The problem was that she didn’t know how to warn them without worrying them.

She paced around the room as she tried to work out her options. Thinking of her family made her think of her hometown of Moosehead Minnesota, and there was one person in Moosehead she knew she could trust and she knew would have the skill set needed to do exactly what needed to be done. Ben Holiday was a private investigator and an ex-cop. He had moved to Moosehead at some point after she had moved away and was currently married to an old high school friend: Holly Thompson. Or at least she had been Holly Thompson before he she married the handsome PI, opened a foster care home, and built a family. Harper had met Ben three years ago while she was living in San Diego. He’d been hired to track down a missing teenager who’d last been seen near Coronado Island. Holly knew that she lived in the area and suggested that Ben contact her for help with the search. In the end she had helped him track down the missing teen and in the process she knew she’d made a lifelong friend.

The more Harper thought about it, the more she realized that contacting Ben was her best bet. Now she just needed to figure out how to contact him without a phone. A quick search of the room confirmed that there wasn’t a phone in the room but maybe the office? The electricity had been off but the gas had been left on so perhaps the phone had been left on as well. It would make sense the phone would remain in service so that those who called the motel unaware that it was closed for the season could leave a message on the answering machine, which she bet, was the sort of messaging system this old motel used.

She walked over to the bed to check on the baby who was still sleeping next to the puppy. Making a quick decision, she grabbed her pocket knife and flashlight, and then headed out into the cold night air. The motel office was just off the highway so she knew she’d need to be careful not to be seen, but while the area was popular with hikers and campers during the summer, the place was all but deserted on a cold night in February.

She had just left the shelter of the room at the back of the lot and had started across the pavement when a set of headlights appeared from the south. She quickly dunked in behind a large redwood, where she waited until the car drove by. Once it had passed she continued toward the office and café. She was just passing the gas pumps when another set of headlights appeared on the horizon. Apparently she’d been wrong about the place being deserted. She dunked behind one of the pumps and watched as a CHP vehicle slowed and then pulled into the lot. She froze as the car pulled up in front of the motel office. A tall man got out and walked over to the door. It wasn’t the same man she had seen shoot the two car accident victims, but not knowing who to trust, she stayed put. The man knocked on the door and then tried the lock. He shone his flashlight around the area, missing her hiding spot by inches. He walked back to the car and then pulled out a handheld radio. “Redwood Junction is clear. The place is locked up tight and there is no sign of the driver of the vehicle or the baby. I’ll continue to keep my eyes open. They can’t have gotten far unless the driver managed to hitch a ride.”

The man took one last look around, got into his car, and then drove away. She let out the breath she’d been holding since he pulled into the lot. She figured she was safe for now but come daylight it would be a different story all together. After making sure there were no other headlights in either direction she ran to the front door of the motel office. She quickly picked the lock and then slipped inside. She knew she couldn’t risk a light, even the light from the flashlight, so she felt around until she found the desk where she suspected she’d find the phone. She let out a long breath of relief when she got a dial tone. She momentarily wondered of using the phone might somehow give away her location, but at this point she needed a way out of this mess so she took a chance and dialed the familiar number.

She listened as the line was answered by a recording. “You have reached Holiday Investigations. We are currently unavailable or on another line, but if you leave your name and number someone will call you back.”

“Ben this is Harper Hathaway. I need help. Don’t call my cell or text or try to reach me using any of my known contact information. I’m going to try your cell. If that doesn’t work I’ll try back in a half hour.”

She hung up, and then dialed Ben’s cell.

“Harper,” I just got your message. I was hoping you’d try the cell. What’s going on?”

She explained about the accident, the baby, the warning issued by the man in the car, and the uniformed officer who had shot him.

“Wow.” Ben paused. “I’m not even sure what to say. I can’t imagine what is going on that would cause a highway patrolman to shoot a man and woman in cold blood.”

“There was a thumb drive in the diaper bag that might explain what is going on but I don’t have a way to read it. I’m not sure what to do. I don’t have transportation, ID, or money, and the man who had been with the baby said not to trust anyone. After seeing a man in uniform shoot the couple who had been with the baby with my own eyes I’m hesitant to call 911. I don’t think that staying here is an option. The highway patrol seem to be checking on the place. It is cold and damp and I am traveling with a puppy and an infant. I need help and I need it fast.”

Ben paused for a moment and then replied. “I have a friend. Michael Maddox. He is a tech whiz and we have worked together on a few cases in the past. He is actually in California this month setting up a security system for financial planning firm. I’m going to give him a call. If he is still in the same location he was when I last spoke to him, he should be able to get to you in five or six hours.”

She let out a sigh of relief. “That would be great.”

“Since I can’t call you, how about you call me back in thirty minutes.”

******

Michael Maddox pulled into the lot of his hotel. He’d been in California for a month now and was beginning to feel the tug in his chest calling him home. Not that he really minded that his job as a cyber security consultant and software developer took him all over the world, but after a month on the road he always felt the urge to head back to Minnesota. Today was his last day on this particular job so it wouldn’t be long before he was be able to leave the temperate climate of Central California for the subzero temperatures found in the north.

With the completion of this job he was basically unemployed for the next six weeks. He was sure he could rustle something up if he really wanted to, but it had been a while since he’d had time to simply relax. Maybe he’d take some time off and enjoy the rest of the winter. It been eons since he’d gone ice fishing. Maybe he’d call his friend Ben Holiday. It had been forever since the two of them had taken a guy’s trip. Of course, Michel acknowledged, Ben was a busy man. Not only was he married to a popular advice columnist who traveled for work almost as often as he did, but the couple had built a blended family consisting of biological children, adopted children, and foster children, that appeared to keep him on his toes.

He turned off his ignition and was beginning to gather his belongings when his phone rang. He answered without bothering to check his caller ID. “Maddox here.”

“Michael its Megan.”

Michael smiled at the sound of his middle sister’s voice. “Meg, how are you?”

“Busy. I only have a minute but I wanted to call to make sure you’ve made your travel reservations.”

“Travel reservations?”

“Mom and dad’s anniversary. You do remember? You promised.”

He did remember although for the life of him he’d been trying to forget. “I know I promised but I’m in California on a job. It’s taking longer than I anticipated. I don’t think I’m going to make it back in time.”

“Not making it back is not an option,” Megan insisted in a stern voice. “Neither Macy nor Marley are going to make it back which means that it is up to you and me.”

Michael winced. He did feel bad about missing his parent’s anniversary party yet again but he really, really, didn’t want to go home.

“Please Michael,” He couldn’t help but hear the desperation in her voice. “I’m counting on you to be there.”

“You know how busy I am?” Michael tried.

“Really?” He could hear the desperation turn to anger. “You are going to use the I’m busy excuse with your younger sister, who is not only doing a demanding surgical rotation as part of her pediatric residency at one of the most demanding hospital’s in the country, but is actively applying for jobs at every major hospital in the world, and is planning the entire anniversary party by herself?”

Michel groaned. She had him there. “Okay. I’m sorry. I’ll be home. I promise. Will it just be you and I and mom and dad?”

“No. Matthew and Julia will be there as well.”

Michael didn’t reply. In spite of Megan’s effort to keep the family together it did seem like there had been one obstacle after another. First there was Maddie and then there was Julia. Totally different situations, but family dividers all the same.”

“I know that Matthew attending the party is the real reason you don’t want to come,” Megan continued. “And I know you have a good reason to want to avoid him, but this isn’t about you. It is about finding a way to be a family in spite of our challenges, and it is the parents who sacrificed a lot when we were growing up so that we could follow the dreams we were destined to develop as adults.”

Michael hung his head. “I know. I’m sorry. I’ll make the reservations tonight. I’ll call you later with the details.”

“Thanks,” Megan sighed in relief. “I know this is difficult for you.”

“It’s not difficult,” Michael lied. “In fact I’m totally over it. So how is the job hunt going?” He wanted desperately to move the subject away from his twin brother and ex-fiancé.

“Slowly. I am more than qualified for every job I have applied for. And I have excellent references. The problem is the other applicants who have applied for these same jobs are equally qualified. Maybe even more qualified. I have to admit that I am beginning to become discouraged. I really hoped to have a job to go to when my residency was done in May.”

“I know it’s tough but I know the perfect job is waiting for you. Maybe you just haven’t stumbled across it.”

“I love your optimism but I don’t think my lack of stumbling is the reason I haven’t even been granted an interview.” Meg groaned. “Perhaps I should lower my standards. I really thought I would be able to snag one of the elite jobs I’ve always dreamed of, but elite jobs tend to attract elite candidates, of which there are a lot more than I initially imagined.”

“Hang in there sis. The perfect job is out there.”

“Easy for you to say. You’ve somehow managed to do a wonderful job of stumbling your way through life without so much as a plan. I, on the other hand, have adhered to a rigid set of goals and objectives since I was a teenager and where has it gotten me?”

“A residency at one of the best hospitals in the country.”

Meg laughed. “I guess you are right. Enough with the whining. I’m really looking forward to seeing you. We all are.”

“And I’m looking forward to seeing you as well.” Michael looked at his screen when his cell beeped. “Listen I have to go. Ben is on the other line.”

“You’ll make the reservations. Tonight.”

“I will. I promise.”

“Don’t let me down big bro. I’m counting on you.”

“I’ll be there with bells on. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Michael hung up with Megan and answered Ben’s call. “Ben I was just thinking about you.”

“You were?”

Michael glanced at the first drops of rain as they landed on his windshield. “I’ve finished up here and am planning to head home in the next day or two. Are you up for some ice fishing?”

“I am. But first I need a favor. A big favor.”

******

Harper decided to head back and check on the baby while she waited. She let herself out the door, locked it behind her just in case, and then paused and considered the small café. It was closed for the season but they may have left something behind. If nothing else she really wanted to find something for the puppy. She pulled out her knife, picked the lock, and then slipped inside. She headed to the kitchen to find that the cabinets were bare, with the exception of a few canned items. When she came across the can of Spam, she figured that would work for the puppy, so she grabbed it along with a can of peaches, then slipped out of the café, locked the door, and sprinted across the dark lot toward the room where she’d left the sleeping dog and infant.

“I have food,” she said to the pup, who raised his head and wagged his tail when she came in. The baby was still sleeping peacefully, so she used her knife to access both the Spam and peaches. The pup inhaled the food without even stopping to chew, and then jumped back onto the bed, curled up with the baby, and went back to sleep. She plucked one of the peaches out of the heavy syrup and nibbled on it, but her appetite was pretty much nonexistent, so she set the can aside. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do if Ben’s friend was no longer in the area of if he was unable to help her for some reason. Both her experience in the Army and her life as a scuba diver and treasure hunter had taught her to think on her feet whatever the situation. And she was good at doing just that, in most cases. But in most cases she didn’t have a baby and a puppy to think about.

She drew the curtains closed except for a small sliver she could peek through. Shutting out the natural light provided by the moon made the room even darker but she had no way of knowing if the patrolman who had been by earlier would come by again and she wasn’t taking any chances. She knew that it was vital to any good plan to have an escape route. She’d chosen the room on the end which featured a small window in the bathroom the others rooms didn’t appear to have. It would be a tight squeeze to get herself, the baby, and the puppy through the narrow opening, but if push came to shove that was exactly what she would do.

Taking the thumb drive out of her pocket she looked at it. She didn’t have her computer or any other way to read it but she felt it might be the key to everything that was going on. There had been an ancient computer in the office but without electricity to run it, its presence did her little good.

She froze as a car pulled into the lot. She crossed the room and peeked out the window. It was a dark colored minivan. Chances are the van belonged to a passing motorist who remembered the small travel stop and had hoped to find gas or lodging. The van sat in the lot for two or three minutes and then continued on.

Harper didn’t have her phone or a watch so she had no way to keep track of time, but after a period she assumed could be thirty minutes passed, she checked on the baby and the puppy, both of whom were still sleeping, then let herself out of the room and headed toward the office. She picked up the phone and dialed Ben’s number.

“Everything is set,” He said once he answered. “Michael was just getting back to his hotel when I called. He is going to grab a few things and then will be on the road heading in your direction within thirty minutes. The traffic should be light at this time of day so he estimates he should be there in about six hours. He won’t be able to call you but I am going to give you his cell number so you can check in with him if need be.”

“Okay great.” She rooted around for a pen and paper and took down the number.

“It’s nine o’clock now so look for him at around three.”

“What make, model, and color of car will he be driving?”

“Black Range Rover with Minnesota plates.”

“Okay, I’ll look for him. And thanks Ben. I don’t know what I would have done if you couldn’t have helped. I’m usually pretty good at taking care of myself but with an infant and a puppy I’m afraid I’m just a bit out of my depth.”

“How is the baby?”

“She seems okay, which is actually amazing since she can’t be more than a few days old and she was just involved in a serious accident. The car seat she was strapped into was a quality seat and the car didn’t look as if had rolled, which may be why she appears to be unharmed.”

“Is she eating?”

“She is. She is not a fan of a cold bottle but the gas is still on so I used warm tap water to heat it.”

She listened as Ben let out a breath. “That’s good. I’ll feel better once Michael gets there. He is a good guy and you can trust him. The fact that a CHP officer seems to be involved in whatever is going on has me worried but I guess we’ll just take things one challenge at a time until we can work through a solution.”

“It will be fine,” She said even though she didn’t necessarily believe it. “I should get back to the room to check on the baby.”

“Before you go I want you to describe the highway patrolman you saw shoot the occupants of the vehicle. I’m going to see if I can track down his identity.”

“Tall. Over six feet. Short dark hair. Thin. Crooked nose, which looked to have been broken in the past.” Harper paused and thought about it. “I didn’t get a real close look so I can’t tell you his eye color. I guess the crooked nose is going to be the best clue I can provide.”

“Okay. I’ll see what I can find out. Be careful and check in when you can.”

She rung off, and then slipped out of the office and headed back toward the room where she’d left the baby and puppy. The puppy indicated that he wanted to go out, so she took a quick peek at the baby, who was still sleeping, then took the pup out behind the building in the event that a car came down the road. She really, really, hoped that the highway patrol wouldn’t be back by, but at this point she couldn’t be certain.

After the puppy had done his thing she returned to the room and tried to get some rest. She fed and changed the baby again at around eleven o’clock. After the baby settled in and went back to sleep, she took the puppy out one more time, and then laid down next to both of them. She tucked the baby in next to her chest, and the puppy settled on her other side. She was sure the baby at least would be warm in spite of the fact that the room was not equipped with a heat source. She must have fallen asleep at some point in spite of the fact that she’d intended to stay awake. When she noticed the headlights shining in through the window she assumed it was Michael. When she got up and peeked out of the small opening in the curtain and noticed the CHP vehicle, she almost had a heart attack. Hopefully the man or woman who had stopped would take a quick look around and then continue on.

The drapes were drawn so other than the small scene visible through the crack in the middle she really couldn’t see much. She looked at the pup who had started to growl. “Do not bark.” she glanced at the bathroom behind her. The baby was still asleep but she knew if the pup barked he would give them away for sure. She gently picked up the baby, grabbed the diaper bag, called to the puppy, and moved everyone to the bathroom. She closed the door except for a crack she could peek through. She could hear that the person who had arrived knocking on and then jiggling the handle of every door. Had she locked the door after the last time she took the puppy out?

She heard the knock on the door and waited for the jiggle when she heard another car pull up. The man who had been checking doors seemed to have walked away since she heard him greet whomever had pulled up. She couldn’t hear what was being said, but after a few minutes, she heard both vehicles pull away. She waited where she was for several minutes and then slowly opened the bathroom door. She hadn’t heard anything since the vehicles had pulled away and was about to sneak over to the window for a peek, when the door opened to reveal a tall broad shouldered man with a gun.

 

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The Inn at Holiday Bay: Letters in the Library

 

Book 2 in the my new Women’s Fiction/Cozy Mystery series publishes on February 11th just in time for Valentine’s Day. I’m really excited about this series and hope you will give it a try.

Kindle  https://amzn.to/2CPVNZ4

Paperback coming soon or read for FREE with Kindle Unlimited

 

PREVIEW:

If there is anything I have learned over the course of the past fourteen months, it is that life is fluid and evolving. It is made up of highs and lows that seem to merge one into the other as events unfold and memories take us where they might. It is messy and unpredictable, and a single unforeseen moment can result in an event so unimaginable, it can cast us into our own personal hell. But life can also surprise and uplift us. It can bring joy and laughter, and if we open ourselves to its presence, it can bring a breathless beauty mere words cannot convey. Life can energize and enrich us, it can provide meaning and belonging in places never expected. Life is a state into which we are born, but in the course of living out our moments, it can also be a decision we are challenged to make.

Fourteen months ago, my husband Ben and infant son Johnathan were killed in a senseless accident that sent me into the darkest depths of despair. At the time, it seemed easier to give in, to lose myself in the darkness, but somewhere along the way, I’d found a reason to choose life, and with that choice, a willingness to dig myself out of my grief one painful moment at a time.

Today would have been Ben’s thirty-fifth birthday had he lived, which, if it had been anything like his thirtieth birthday, would most likely have resulted in a day of sullen introspection on his part. Ben had serious goals for his life, and a timeline marked off in five year-increments, which corresponded to those goals. If his timeline was off by even a tiny bit when a defining birthday came around, you could bet that champagne toasts and decadent cakes would have been replaced by the sort of despondent torment that would make him almost unbearable to be around. Of course, in this moment, as I sat in a dark room and remembered my life with the man I had loved with my whole being, I knew in my heart I would welcome despondent torment, or really any mood, if it meant that Ben and I could be together even one more day.

God, I missed him.

I leaned back into the pillows I’d stacked against my headboard as a deep sorrow engulfed me. Rufus, the cat I’d never wanted but now couldn’t imagine living without, snuggled up next to me, purring loudly. I leaned over and turned on the bedside lamp. Opening the drawer of the nightstand, I pulled out a small box. Taking a deep breath, I lifted the lid, then reached into the box and pulled out a photo. The one I’d randomly chosen had been taken of Ben the day he’d made detective. I ran a finger over his huge grin. He’d been so happy and proud. He’d worked hard and never looked back despite the challenges he’d been tasked with along the way. Ben had most definitely been a disciplined fellow, and with the promotion, he’d actually been ahead of his schedule, so maybe this birthday, unlike his thirtieth, would have been all smiles and happy celebration.

Rufus butted his head under my chin, in a move I’d come to recognize as his attempt to offer comfort when I was sad. I scratched him behind the ears, then picked up another photo of Ben and me on our wedding day. A single tear trailed down my cheek as I turned the photo over to find our names, Ben and Abby Sullivan, along with the date of our union, and the location, in the heart of San Francisco, where we’d promised to love and honor each other until death do us part.

Death do us part. Who could have guessed that death would part us a mere five years after we pledged our lives to each other?

I replaced the photo and rummaged through the box, which also contained photos of the first little apartment we lived in before we were even married, my first book signing, the trip to Mexico we took when I made the New York Times Bestsellers list, and, of course, many, many photos of the unexpected and unplanned but very welcome child who had come from our union. Ben loved Johnathan and would have been a good father, but I did have to wonder how a baby in the house might have altered the life path he had set up for himself. Would he have taken changes to that plan with a grain of salt or would he have eventually sunk into a depression he might never have been able to work himself out of? Now I guess we’d never know.

Johnathan had only been five weeks old when a distracted driver had swerved into Ben’s lane, ripping both my husband and my infant son from my life. Ben had never wanted children, and to be honest, prior to having Johnathan, a baby was the farthest thing from my mind as well. But once Johnathan was born, and I’d held him in my arms, I knew that he occupied a hole in my life that could never have been filled by anyone as completely as it had been by the tiny little gift from heaven that had arrived two weeks early on a rainy fall day.

I set the box of photos on the nightstand and glanced out the window. It was early. Still dark. I doubted that my roommate would be up, which was just as well because I felt that I needed some time to pull my ragged emotions into line. After Ben and Johnathan died, I hadn’t wanted to go on living. I was so lost and afraid. I truly believed my life was over, and I hadn’t known what to do to find my way back to the living. Those first weeks of empty rooms, pitying glances, and days without hope of happiness were the darkest of my life. But then I’d seen an ad for a dilapidated old mansion perched high upon a bluff overlooking the sea, and I knew that if I ever wanted to reenter the land of the living, I’d need a fresh start and a new perspective. I paid cash for the house sight unseen, packed up my belongings, and moved from San Francisco to Holiday Bay, Maine, where I found the new life I’d longed for and a reason to go on.

Making a decision, I slid my legs out of bed and sat up. It had been a while since I’d taken Rufus to Velma’s Café for his favorite scrambled eggs. Velma was one of the first people I’d met after arriving in Holiday Bay and I still considered her to be one of the most important people in my East Coast life, second only to my new best friend and roommate, Georgia Carter, who had shown up on my doorstep a couple of months ago with her huge black dog, Ramos. Since Velma and Georgia had become a daily part of my life, the world had opened up for me, and things I’d once thought impossible, had begun to fall into place. Getting out of bed, I slipped on a pair of jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a heavy sweatshirt, then padded into the bathroom to brush my teeth and comb my hair. Tiptoeing so as not to wake Georgia, I picked up Rufus and headed out into the frigid morning.

I paused after exiting the cottage and looked out toward the sea. The dawn of a new day was just beginning to light the horizon. It was a frosty morning and I’d heard they were predicting snow, but in this isolated moment, as I looked toward the distant light, I felt a deep gratitude for the life I had discovered. From the moment I’d first seen the cottage on the rocky bluff overlooking the sea, I knew in my heart that fate had led me to the exact spot in time and space where I needed to be to rebuild my shattered life.

******

The lull between the enchantment and magic of the Christmas Festival and the elegance and romance of the Valentine’s Ball had settled over Holiday Bay, bringing a quiet I found welcoming. Not that I hadn’t enjoyed the festival, which ran from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, but I found that after the energy of the holiday season, I longed for the quiet and serenity that comes with a slower pace. Of course, I supposed that at least part of my appreciation for the silence stemmed from the fact that I was smack dab in the middle of the remodel on the mansion and my days at home tended to be loud, and crowded, and hectic. A lot more hectic, I realized, than I had even imagined they would be.

“Morning, Velma,” I said to the woman I’d met on my first morning in Holiday Bay and now called a friend.

“Abby; Rufus. It’s been a while since the two of you have been in.”

I hung up my jacket and then slipped into a booth. The diner was deserted so early in the morning, which was just fine with me. “I’ve been busy with the remodel, as well as the novel, so I have been staying close to home. Rufus and I woke up early this morning and decided it was a good day to come in and say hi.”

Velma set a menu on the table. “Georgia not with you?”

“Georgia and Ramos were still sleeping when we left the cottage.”

“Well, I’m glad the two of you stopped by. It’s been quiet now that the holiday is over. What can I get for you?”

“I’ll have biscuits and sausage gravy and Rufus will have scrambled eggs.”

Velma set a cup of coffee in front of me, then hurried off to make our meals. Rufus, who was familiar with the procedure, followed Velma into the kitchen, where he would eat in the mudroom at the back of the building. Once they had disappeared from sight, I took out my phone and checked my messages. There was one from my agent, asking for an update on the manuscript I was working on, one from an old friend of Ben’s, acknowledging his birthday and wishing me all the best on what must be a difficult day, and one from my insurance agent, asking for some additional information for my homeowner’s policy. The most surprising message of all, however, was a short email from my sister Annie, letting me know that she was thinking of me today.

As I read the email for a second time, I put my hand over my heart and sucked in a deep breath. Tears I had been valiantly holding at bay streamed down my cheeks as I pictured my sister in my mind. In the months since I’d left California for Maine, I’d longed for even a small glimmer of hope that my relationship with Annie could be repaired, and after months without a word from her, this was the first time I actually felt hope.

“What is it?” Velma asked, setting a plate of food in front of me.

I used the back of my hand to wipe the moisture from my face. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

“My eyesight might not be as good as it once was, but you don’t look fine.” Velma sat across from me. She placed her hand on my forearm. “What is it, sugar? Maybe I can help.”

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Today would have been Ben’s birthday.”

“Ah. I see. I guess that events such as birthdays never celebrated would lend themselves to a few tears.” Velma handed me a napkin. “You go ahead and have yourself a good cry.”

I took the napkin from Velma and wiped my eyes. “I know this is going to sound crazy, but I’ve already spent some time this morning with my memories of Ben, and I think I am going to be okay. The fact that it would have been his thirty-fifth birthday, which admittedly is a big one, isn’t really responsible for these tears.”

“So what is behind those leaky eyes?”

“I received an email from my sister, Annie.”

“Sister?’ Velma raised a brow. “I didn’t know you had a sister. You’ve never mentioned her.”

I took a sip of my coffee and leaned back in the booth. “We’ve been estranged ever since I made the decision to move to Holiday Bay. At least we’ve been estranged on her part. It’s sort of confusing, but basically, I was such a mess after Ben died, and Annie tried to help me through it. The problem was, at the time I didn’t want to get through it and wasn’t ready to let go of my grief, so I guess I pushed her away. She still hung by me despite my sour mood, until I decided to use my share of the money our grandmother left us to buy the house here. She thought I was making a terrible and impulsive mistake and tried to stop me from both buying the house and making the move. When I chose to ignore her pleas, she tried to stop me legally, and when that didn’t work, she removed herself from the situation and hasn’t spoken to or even communicated with me since.”

“Oh darling, I’m so sorry. To lose a sister after having lost so much. I just can’t imagine.”

“It’s been tough, and I have been trying to find a way back to her. Ever since I’ve been living in Holiday Bay, I’ve been writing her chatty emails about the house and the town, hoping that she will see that I am happy. I hoped if she could see that, and the decision to move here wasn’t a huge mistake, she would choose to let bygones be bygones and be happy with me. But until today, she hasn’t responded to any of the dozens of emails I’ve sent.”

“And today?” Velma asked.

“She sent me just a single sentence that let me know she was thinking of me. It’s not a lot, but it is something. To me, the act offers hope that maybe at some point in the future we can heal our relationship. She’s the only family I have left.” I glanced at Velma. “Well, at least the only family that is related by blood. Since moving to Holiday Bay, I feel like I have a new family that means much more to me than I can ever say.”

“I know what you mean. One of the reasons I would never consider a move from Holiday Bay is because I have family here, although truth be told, not a single member of that family is related by blood.”

“Your parents are no longer with you?”

Velma shook her head. “They’ve been gone a long time. I do, like you, have a sister, but like you, we are estranged. She moved away a very long time ago and I haven’t seen her since.”

“I’m so sorry. When was the last time you saw your sister?”

“More than thirty years ago.”

I choked on my coffee. “Thirty years? But why? It seems that in thirty years you could have found a way to mend fences.”

Velma shrugged. “The years get away from you if you aren’t keeping a close eye on them. When Regina left, I assumed she’d be back. I really didn’t even fret about her departure at the time. We had both set our sights on the same guy, a guy she loved but who chose me, and I guess I figured that a little separation would be good for us. I hoped it would give us some perspective so that we could talk things through and put our argument behind us.” A look of sadness came over Velma’s face. “I really thought she’d be home by Christmas. Reggie loved Christmas at Holiday Bay. But Christmas came and went and she didn’t come home, so I decided to set my sights on the following December. But the years sort of melted one into the other, and she never did come home. I guess at this point I should assume she never will.”

“And the guy?”

“Married him.” Velma let out a laugh that sounded more like a snort. “Didn’t last more than a couple of miserable years. Guess I should have let Reggie have him, but I was young and he was everything I thought I’d ever wanted. He was a mistake I have lived to regret.”

“You should go to Reggie and talk to her. Tell her that you made a mistake and are sorry.”

“Can’t. I have no idea where she is.”

“There must be a way to find her. Have you tried?”

Velma shook her head. “Seems pointless at this point in time. I may not have known where to find Reggie all these years, but she knew where to find me. If she had wanted to talk to me at any point during the past thirty years, she could have called or come by.” Velma looked up as a family of six came in through the front door. “I need to get to work. You enjoy those biscuits.”

That family turned out to be the beginning of the breakfast crowd, so I finished my food in silence. Wow, thirty years. I guess I understood how little things could turn into big things and people we cared about could drift away, but thirty years? Maybe Velma didn’t know where her sister was after all this time, but the mystery writer in me assured me that there must be a way to find her. With today’s technology, oftentimes a name and a directed internet search was enough to provide the information I knew we’d need to at least begin our search.

Velma was still busy when I’d finished my meal, so it seemed apparent I wouldn’t be able to speak to her about it today. I left a nice tip, grabbed Rufus, and headed to my car. As long as I was in town, I figured I’d stop by the market, so I set Rufus on the passenger seat of my SUV and drove in that direction. The town was beginning to show signs of life by this point, as folks headed to work and parents began ferrying their children to school.

After I purchased the items I needed, I headed out to the parking lot, where I stood for a moment and simply listened to the sound of the wind whistling through the trees. Snow flurries filled the air, blocking out the clear skies I’d woken to. Winter in Maine certainly wasn’t for everyone, with the frigid temperatures and frequent snow, but given the current parameters of my life, I found the isolation to be actually pretty perfect.

Once my groceries were loaded, I returned the store cart and then headed home. Home, I thought to myself. A word that means so much more than just a place to hang one’s hat. A word that at one point in my life I’d taken for granted. A word I’d lost along the way, only to rediscover it in a place I’d never imagined before tragedy had consumed my life.

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The Inn at Holiday Bay: Boxes in the Basement

 

Book one in my new Holiday Bay series publishes on November 20th. Here is a preview for those of you interested in a sneak peek.

Preorder Today: https://amzn.to/2Dr3BSZ

 

Chapter 1

Maybe it had been insanity that caused me to sell my condo, pack my belongings, and buy a huge old house I had never even seen. Maybe it had been my unwillingness to face the grief I would not deal with and could not escape, that caused me to move to a town I knew nothing about and had never even visited. Or maybe, just maybe, when I’d seen the ad for the rundown old house perched on a bluff overlooking the sea, I hadn’t been running at all. Maybe, I tried desperately to convince myself, I’d simply seen the opportunity to do something fun. Creative. Different.

No, I admitted as I gingerly placed a foot on the first of three rotted steps leading to the decayed front porch. It hadn’t been insanity, an unwillingness to deal, or a longing for fun that caused me to give up my life in California to move to a tiny town in coastal Maine where no one knew who I was or what I had been through. What it had been, I decided, was preservation.

I sighed in relief when I made it to the front door without falling through the rotted wood. I took out the brand-new key I’d been given by the Realtor after he’d had the locks changed prior to my arrival, opened the door, and then stepped into the entry. The floor was damaged and would need to be replaced, and the wallpaper was peeling and would need to be stripped, but the rooms were totally empty, and empty rooms, I knew, even those in disrepair, were preferable to rooms filled with well-meaning friends who were unable to deal with your grief and wanted to help but felt helpless to do so.

The entrance to the home was large and airy and opened up to twin staircases spiraling toward the second story. I’d been told the house had three stories of living space, ten bedrooms, eight baths, and a large living area consisting of several rooms including a parlor and a library, on the first floor. I was also promised the property included a separate guesthouse that could be used as a mother-in-law unit. Apparently, the English gentleman who built the house back in 1895 had grand plans to marry his one true love and fill those ten bedrooms with chubby-cheeked children, but his dream, like mine, had never come to fruition, and so like me, he’d moved away. I knew there had been several owners between Chamberlain Westminster and Bodine Devine, the man from whom I’d bought the house. I wasn’t certain of the entire history, but I supposed it didn’t really matter.

While my move to the small town of Holiday Bay might not have been well-thought-out, the challenge to gently nudge the old girl back to her former glory had come at the perfect time. The house, I decided, would occupy my energy and my mind. Rehabilitating it would give me focus and provide a safe harbor from which I could fight my demons and finally begin to heal.

My long brown hair blew across my face as the front door blew open behind me. I whirled around, prepared to defend my territory, but all I found was empty space. I put a hand to my chest as my heart pounded. There was no one there; it was just the wind. I had to admit this huge, empty house had me on edge. It was almost as if I was half-expecting someone or something to jump out at me from around every corner. I took a deep breath, crossed the room, and reached for the door, preparing to remedy the situation, when a huge orange cat that had to be half mountain lion given its enormous size, darted between my legs and into the entry. “Shoo,” I said as I waved my arms toward it. The cat looked at me with eyes as green as my own, took a few steps, turned, then trotted up the stairs. “Hey,” I called after the feline. “You don’t live here. You really can’t stay.” The cat reached the landing at the top of the first flight of stairs, turned to glare at me once again, and then continued down the hallway.

“Damn cat,” I muttered under my breath. Life, I decided, was a cruel jokester. As if I didn’t have enough to deal with, I now seemed to have a stowaway. Suffice it to say, Abby Sullivan was not now, nor had she ever been, a cat person, or any kind of animal person for that matter. I considered going after the cat but decided that perhaps it would find its way out on its own.

Returning my attention to the house, I walked into what, I assumed, was the main living area. The room was empty, but the hand-carved mantel, which framed the old stone fireplace, truly was a work of art. I ran my hand over the intricately carved surface and imagined the craftsman who had taken the time to get every detail just right. Hand carvings like this were rare these days, and I knew in my heart that the mantel, at least, would need to be preserved.

I turned back toward the room and considered the intricately carved crown molding along the ceiling. There were sections that would need to be replaced, but I supposed the damaged sections could be replicated. It would be a shame to tear down the original material if there was any way it could be saved.

I knew I’d taken on a project when I bought the place, but until I’d arrived and had a chance to look around, I’d had no idea how truly large a project it would be. There were a lot of rooms in need of attention, and so far it looked as if each room was the size of my entire condo back in San Francisco.

No need to panic, I assured myself, as I walked into the room I assumed had been previously used as a formal dining area. The house was going to be a lot of work, but I was up for the task. I’d just need to get organized, consider the entire project, and come up with a plan. From my experience, almost any project was possible as long as I broke it down into small steps I could handle so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the work in its entirety.

I walked through the dining area to the back of the house, where I imagined I’d find the kitchen. The room was charming in an old-fashioned way. It was a large room with a lot of potential, although the appliances were ancient, the wallpaper peeling, and the cabinets dated. I supposed a total gut job would be required for this particular room, which meant that a hotplate and microwave might be good items to purchase, along with cleaning supplies, mousetraps, and maybe something that would provide the mountain lion, who I was certain was still prowling around upstairs, motivation to leave. What I needed, I realized, was a list. I took out my phone and opened an app. Taking action, any action, seemed like a move in a positive direction, which provided my slightly overwhelmed psyche with the illusion of control.

“Number one,” I said aloud, “go to the store and buy food to last several days, and maybe an ice chest to store the food until the status of the refrigerator can be determined.”

I walked over to the refrigerator and opened the door. I grimaced at the mess I found and then took a step back. Determining status didn’t seem to be the issue so much as replacing the old unit with something less disgusting.

“Number two,” I continued, as I walked around the room, opening and closing cupboards, “find a place to set up a home base while renovations are underway.” I had brought an air mattress, sleeping bag, pillow, and jug of water with me, so once I’d figured out where to set up, I’d bring it all in and build a little nest. I had a stack of books, several bottles of wine, music on my phone, and even a propane light that would come in handy until I could deal with the electricity.

“Number three,” I said into my phone, “have gas, water, and electricity turned on.” I paused and looked around at the shabby interior. It really had been a while since the house had been lived in. “Number four,” I added, “find a plumber and an electrician to check everything out before using the gas, water, and electricity.”

There was a door leading off the kitchen that I assumed led to the basement that had been part of the listing. I turned the handle and opened the door to find wooden stairs descending into a dark space. Closing the door, I decided to leave a tour of the basement for another time and continued toward the rear of the house. The laundry area was large, but the windows had been boarded up, and the place was nothing more than a tangle of cobwebs. Taking a deep breath, I continued to the back door, which led out onto a huge deck that actually appeared to be in good repair. Climbing down from the deck, I headed in the direction of an adorable little cottage the Realtor had referred to as the guesthouse. From its location on the edge of the sea, I bet the view from this little place would probably be even more spectacular than the one from the house. Climbing the steps to the wraparound porch, I took out the second set of keys I’d been given and opened the door. I wasn’t expecting much, given the state of disrepair of the main house, so when I opened the door and stepped inside, I was more than pleasantly surprised. The cozy space was dusty, but it looked as if it had been recently renovated and appeared move-in ready. I smiled as I noticed the large stone fireplace on one wall of the main living area. I could imagine how cozy it would be to curl up in front of the fire during a winter storm. The fireplace had a gas insert that looked as if it had been recently installed, but I supposed I should have it checked before I used it. I picked up my phone and added fireplace guy to my list.

The living room, which featured hardwood floors and pale gray walls, opened up to a small but newly updated kitchen, which, thankfully, appeared to have working appliances. The space was charming and modern, with granite countertops and updated cabinets. I knew the cottage had two bedrooms, one in the front that looked out over the now-overgrown garden, and one at the back, overlooking the sea.

I poked my head into one of the two bathrooms. The dark gray granite countertops, like those in the kitchen, looked new, which thrilled me, but the cabinets, while updated, had been painted a dark green. Not really my color, but I could always repaint, and the room looked as if it would be adequate once I had the water turned on. Things were definitely looking up, I decided as I headed to the larger of the two bedrooms. The room had a door at the rear that I assumed opened out to a private deck.
“Wow,” I said as I took in the view. It was simply amazing.

The dark gray of the winter bay in the distance was bordered by a lush green forest covered with a layer of snow producing an absolutely stunning contrast. The entire shoreline looked to be uninhabited, with the exception of a single dwelling in the distance, perched on the edge of the sea. A feeling of peace rose as the serenity of the landscape wrapped itself around me like a warm hug. I’d always found the sea to have a calming effect on my nerves, even during the worst of times.

Here, I decided, as I took in a deep breath of fresh sea air, was where I’d build my nest. Here in this little guesthouse, where I could both wake up and fall asleep to this spectacular view. I’d need a bed, and possibly a dresser, but for now I’d blow up my air mattress and set it next to the huge glass doors, which I planned to wash as soon as I got my supplies. It would be from this perfect spot, in this little house, that I’d read, dream, refurbish, and heal. I knew the journey to making the main house habitable would be a long one. I knew the road to healing would be even longer. But for the first time since I’d packed my SUV and merged onto Hwy 80 east, I actually believed both might be possible.
Heading back to my SUV, I grabbed my laptop and travel bag. I went back to the cottage, making the first of many trips. Once I had the vehicle unloaded, I sat down at the kitchen counter on one of the stools left behind. I took out my laptop and opened my mail app. I used my phone to take a photo of the fantastic view, then attached it to an email.

I stared at the blank page for several minutes as I worked up the courage to continue. I had done a lot of difficult things in the past year, but for some reason, writing this email seemed harder than most.

Dear Annie,

Greetings from Maine. I’ve attached a photo of the view from the little cottage where I plan to begin rebuilding my life. Isn’t it fabulous? I know you’re concerned that I’ve descended into madness and am no longer in control of my mental faculties, and I understand your trepidation at the choices I’ve made since the accident, but I needed to do this despite your fears. It would mean so much if you could find it in your heart to understand and support my choice.

Love,
Abby

I read the email through, then let my finger linger over the Send button. Part of me wondered why I bothered, but another part realized that making things right with the only family I had left was a necessary step if I really wanted to rebuild my life.

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A Whisker in Time

 

A Whisker in Time, book 16 in the Whales and Tails series, publishes on Tuesday September 25th. It includes the bonus short story The Cat of New Orleans for those you of who have not as of yet read it. According to the Madrona Island timeline, The Cat of New Orleans would fall between Farewell to Felines and A Whisker in Time, so if you haven’t read it you might want to hop to the back of the book and read it first. https://amzn.to/2D2RZqX

The Catsgiving Feast follows A Whisker in Time on November 6. https://amzn.to/2D30nXd

 

Preview from A Whisker in Time

 

Friday, October 26

The dark hardwood floors shone brightly as the first patrons entered the newly remodeled bar my brothers, Aiden and Danny Hart, had sunk all their money as well as all their time into. While O’Malley’s had been the local watering hole for quite some time, after years under the same ownership it had begun to feel tired and somewhat dated. When the O’Malley family came to the decision to move to Boston, Aiden and Danny had decided to buy the bar, refurbish it, and make it their own.
And what a facelift they’d given the place! The scuffed and faded wood floors had been sanded and stained in a dark walnut to match the original bar, which now had to be considered an antique by anyone’s standards. The old rickety tables and wobbly chairs had been replaced with new furnishings in a much lighter shade. The natural wood walls, which had previously been dark and dingy, also had been sanded and stained, this time with a rich pine finish. The most dramatic change, however, was to the old back wall, which had featured a black metal door leading out to the back deck. My sister Siobhan had suggested that the brothers replace the metal door with large glass sliders, which would bring in more natural light and a new element if placed on either side of a floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace. The doors, along with the additional accent windows that had been placed along the entire wall, brought in the feel of the outdoors, while a low-maintenance gas fireplace provided a warm, cozy feel during the colder winter months.
The place, in a word, was fabulous.
“It looks like the whole town came out for the grand opening,” my best friend, Tara O’Brian, said to me. Tara and I, along with my sisters, Siobhan Finnegan and Cassidy Hart, my fiancé, Cody West, and my brother-in-law, Ryan Finnegan, had volunteered to help out during this important event.
“I knew people were excited about seeing what the guys had been up to, but even I have to admit the turnout is better than I could have hoped.”
“I guess the real test will be whether the guys can retain the steady local business O’Malley always was able to depend on,” Tara commented as we loaded pints of beer on a tray for delivery to the tables to which we’d been assigned.
“Danny and Aiden have been customers at the bar for years. They know all the regulars. I think they’re going to do fine.”
I looked around the crowded room. As I’d predicted, many of the bar’s regular customers had shown up and were holding court at their usual tables. Chappy Longwood was an old and weathered fishing captain who’d worked the waters surrounding Madrona Island since before my brothers were born. He was retired from commercial fishing now, but it wasn’t unheard of to find him out on the water, reeling in his own dinner for the evening. Chappy was in many ways considered to be a fixture at O’Malley’s. He liked to sit at the bar and chat with whoever was tending bar on any particular day.
Edwin Brown, a retired history teacher who’d worked at the high school when I was a teenager but had since retired, liked to set up camp in the corner by the window. He was currently running for island council and used the bar as a place to meet with voters and campaign for the seat. He usually showed up early with a book. He liked to read the classics while he waited for his fellow islanders to arrive, but once he had an audience, he worked the room so effectively, you’d assume he’d been in politics his entire life.
And then there was Pops McNab. Pops had lived on the island since before my father was born. I had no idea how old he was, but I was certain he must have passed his eightieth birthday years ago. Pops liked to talk about the Madrona Island of his past, and most of the regulars who spent time at the bar enjoyed listening to his often-far-fetched stories.
Yes, I decided as Tara and I picked up our trays and walked through the crowded room, the regulars had shown up in an offer of support. Both Aiden and Danny were behind the bar, filling orders and chatting with everyone who came in. Cody and Siobhan were helping Cassie in the kitchen, while Finn stood near the front door, ready to take on the role of bouncer if necessary. Tonight truly was a family affair, but after this, Danny and Aiden would have to make do with the staff they’d hired, including two new waitresses, Stacy Barnwell and Libby Baldwin. They were both running a mile a minute, so I’d pitched in to help deliver drinks. I’d just emptied my tray when someone bumped into me from behind, almost knocking me onto my backside. I turned around only to come face-to-face with the last person I wanted to see.
“Monica,” I said with the sweetest smile I could muster. Monica Caldron had gone to school with Cody and Danny. She’d been, and still was, a beautiful woman who’d dated both my brother and my fiancé before leaving the island a decade ago. When I heard she was back, I was cautious. When she told me right to my face that she planned to seduce Cody away from me and would offer proof that she had, I was furious.
“Well, if it isn’t the soon-to-be-dumped Caitlin Hart,” Monica purred.
I was pretty sure I snarled at her.
“Where is that handsome fiancé of yours anyway?”
“In the kitchen helping out, but I’m afraid that’s off-limits to everyone other than staff and tonight’s volunteers. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.” I turned and headed back to the bar, summoning every ounce of willpower I had not to deck the witch I’d been itching to punch it out with ever since she’d shown up on the island two weeks ago.
“What’s she doing here?” Tara asked as I began refilling my tray with the next load of drinks.
“She’s looking for Cody.”
“Ask Finn to kick her out,” Tara suggested. “You know she’s only here to cause trouble.”
I watched as the woman made her way around the bar, distributing her own sickeningly sweet brand of sensuality to every male, whether they were with a date or not. She stopped to smile at Chappy, kissed Pops on the cheek, then sat down across from Edwin, leaning in close, as if to have a serious conversation. I had to admit she knew how to use her God-given gifts.
I looked away from the woman who seemed to be working hard to piss me off and turned my attention to Tara. “Other than bumping into me, which I’m sure was intentional, she hasn’t done anything to warrant removal from the premises. This is a public grand reopening and the whole community was invited. If I insist on her being bounced, I’ll be the one who looks petty.”
“She’s on the island to steal your fiancé,” Tara reminded me. “I don’t think anyone would consider you petty for defending what’s yours.”
“I know why she’s here and you know why she’s here, but no one else other than family knows she’s been threatening to seduce Cody away from me. Even Cody defended her in a roundabout way when I made it clear to him Monica was on the island for one reason and one reason only.”
Tara frowned. “He defended her?”
“Sort of. First, he assured me that even if she was here to win him back, she had absolutely zero chance of success because I was the only one he’d ever loved or ever would love, but then he ruined his vow of devotion by adding that Monica had been drunk when Siobhan and I ran into her while dining at Antonio’s, and he was sure she’d spoken out of turn when she made it clear she was on the island to rekindle things with him after all this time. He even hinted that perhaps I’d misunderstood what she said.”
Tara picked up her tray. “Men are so clueless. They see a pretty face and a perfect body and their minds freeze up, preventing them from seeing the demon beneath the beauty.” She added napkins. “I’ve no doubt Monica is here to do exactly what she threatened to do, but Cody loves you. I doubt he’ll even notice if she comes on to him.”
I hoped Tara was right, but I had my doubts. I remembered how Danny had followed Monica around like an obedient little puppy when they were dating, and he wasn’t the type to trail any girl around. He was much more the love-’em-and-leave-’em sort, so the fact that she seemed to have mesmerized both Danny and Cody when she lived here before terrified me. I trusted Cody. I really did. It was Witch Monica I didn’t trust.
“The group at table seven wants another round,” Stacy informed me. She was a single mom with two-year-old twins who had recently moved to the island, a hard worker who seemed like a genuinely nice person. It was my opinion she would fit in to the O’Malley’s family quite nicely.
“I’m on my way,” I answered with a smile. “I think we’re all going to be exhausted by the end of the evening, but I’m loving this turnout.”
Stacy smiled back. “Yeah. I think the guys are pretty happy too.” She picked up her own tray. “By the way, I saw what happened. I have your back if you need some help with the she-devil.”
“Thanks. I appreciate the offer, but I can handle Monica if need be.”
The next two hours were so crazy busy, I had little time to worry about, or keep track of, Monica. Finn was called away from his post by the door after an accident was reported on the highway. Of course this was Madrona Island, so a bouncer was probably unnecessary anyway.
By the time ten o’clock rolled around, the bar was so crowded it was almost impossible to walk through. I wasn’t sure how Danny and Aiden were keeping up with the drink orders until I noticed Siobhan had joined them behind the bar. “Who’s helping Cassie in the kitchen?” I asked my older sister.
“The brothers decided to close the kitchen and focus all their energy on the bar until closing. Aiden ordered a bunch of pizzas from the place down the street and Cassie went to pick them up. She’s going to cut them into small pieces and we’ll serve them as complimentary appetizers.”
“That’s a good idea.” I looked around the room but didn’t see Cody. “Did Cody go with her?”
Siobhan shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’m not sure where he went. He was talking to Alex Turner, who showed up with Willow earlier, but I think they left to pick up the baby from his grandpa’s.”
Alex Turner and Willow Wood were friends who were co-parenting Willow’s son, Barrington Wood Turner. Alex had adopted baby Barrington, who was named for his biological father, which made him legally responsible for him along with his mother, despite the fact that he and Willow weren’t married or even dating. At least, they weren’t dating in the traditional sense of the word. They were living together and raising a child, but so far their personal relationship seemed to have remained platonic.
By the time I’d delivered another round of drinks, things were beginning to clear out. Aiden and Danny planned to stay open until midnight if the bar was still hopping, but I was exhausted and hoped the party would break up earlier so I could head home and fall into what I was sure would be a dreamless sleep. Siobhan had left shortly after we spoke to pick up baby Connor from our mother’s place. Connor was born to Finn and Siobhan just four months ago, but already it seemed most family events revolved around the totally adorable baby boy who looked just like his mama with the exception of his eyes, which were Finn all the way.
I’d set down my tray and was about to go outside to look for Cody when someone shoved me from behind, sending me into a table that tipped over, landing on top of me as my butt hit the floor. “What the—?” I was about to finish the sentence with a very unladylike four-letter word when I saw Monica smiling smugly at me. I’m not really sure what happened next; I guess my pent-up frustration with her finally got to me, because the next thing I knew, I was on my feet, and Monica was on her knees with her right arm pinned firmly behind her back.
“You witch,” Monica screamed at the top of her lungs. “Are you insane? Let me go!”
I hesitated.
“Let her go, Cait.” Danny walked up next to me.
“She started it.”
“I didn’t start anything, you raving lunatic. Now let me go or I’ll have you arrested for assault.”
Danny put his hand on mine. “It’s okay. I saw what happened. I’ll take care of it.”
I released my grip and took a step back. Monica slapped me and called me a pathetic loser, which resulted in Danny grabbing her by the arm and dragging her away.
“Are you okay?” Aiden asked after Danny and Monica headed toward the back hallway.
I rubbed my cheek. “I’m okay. I just need some air. I’ll be outside for a few minutes.”
I left through the new side door onto the patio, where outdoor fire pits had been set up to provide warmth on cool evenings, and sat down on an empty bench. I wanted to cry, or yell, or even slap Monica back, but all I could manage was a few deep breaths to get myself under control. I hoped Danny would have shown Monica the door by the time I went back inside. The thin thread of patience I’d been clinging to since she’d returned to the island had definitely snapped when she’d thrown me into the table. Damn, that and the slap had hurt.
After a few minutes, Cody came out and sat down beside me. “Are you okay? I heard what happened.”
“I’m okay. I just needed to get away. Where were you?”
“Out in the parking lot, talking to a couple of the guys from the softball team. I wasn’t gone long. I needed some air after spending the entire evening in the kitchen.” Cody put his arm around me and pulled me close. “Maybe I should take you home.”
“No, I’m fine. I want to help with the cleanup, and the last thing I want to do is give Monica a reason to think she ran me off. That woman needs to go.”
“I don’t disagree, but I can’t make her leave the island. I’ve told her that I’m not interested in what she’s offering and I’m doing my best to avoid her, but I’m not sure what more I can do.”
“People turn up missing all the time. No one knows why.”
Cody raised a brow. “Really? You want me to dump her in the ocean?”
I shrugged. “I’ve had worse ideas.”
Cody chuckled. “You’re right. You have had worse ideas. But in this case, I think we might want to come up with a different strategy.”
I huffed out a breath in frustration. “What strategy?”
“We could get married.”
Now it was my turn to raise a brow. “Really? You want us to throw together a quickie wedding so your ex will leave us alone?”
“We’ve been engaged for a year,” Cody pointed out in what seemed to be a much more serious tone than the one he’d used when we were discussing the option of a cement-boots burial.
I paused and then answered. “I know. And I want to marry you. But I’m not going to hurry things along just to get rid of Monica. We’ll get married when we’re ready to and not a minute before.”
Cody put his hand to my cheek and turned me to look at him. “Just so you know, I’m ready.”
I let out a long breath. “I know. But we have that one pesky problem I can’t seem to find an answer for. And no, I’m not referring to Monica. I’m referring to your mother.”
Cody’s mother was insisting that he and I get married in Florida, which was where she and several other West family members had moved after leaving Madrona Island. I wanted to get married on the island where I’d lived my entire life, with my family and friends. I wanted to get married in the church I’d attended since birth and I wanted to have the reception on the peninsula where I lived, down the beach from the house Cody would someday inherit and where we would raise our family.
“I told you, we can get married wherever you want,” Cody countered.
“I know, but I don’t want to start my married life with my mother-in-law hating me. I need another option.”
“If I can work it out so my mom is happy and we’re able to get married on Madrona Island, would you be willing to set a date?”
I nodded. “In a heartbeat.”
Cody leaned in and kissed me lightly on the lips. “Okay. Let me see what I can work out with her. She can be stubborn, but in the end, she wants me to be happy.”
“Okay,” I said. “If you can work it out, we’ll set a date.” I leaned forward and kissed Cody slightly harder than he’d kissed me. “In the meantime, I think it’s important we continue to practice for the honeymoon. Let’s go in and start cleaning up. I have a bottle of wine and two glasses waiting for us back at the cabin.”
Cody took my hand and pulled me to my feet. When we arrived inside, there were only a few partygoers still mingling around. One of Cody’s friends had consumed way too much alcohol to be driving, so Cody ran him home, while Cassie, Tara, and I began cleaning up. By the time we’d cleared the empty glasses from the front and headed to the kitchen to start the cleanup in there, everyone had left with the exception of the two full-time waitresses and the family who’d stayed behind to help.
“I don’t suppose anyone knows what happened to the mop?” I asked the rest of the cleaning crew.
“I think it might be in the storage room,” Tara answered.
“Okay, I’ll get it.” I figured if we hurried with the cleanup, I could leave without feeling guilty once Cody returned. It had been a long night and I was beyond tired. Still, I was happy the evening had been a success. Other than the intrusion of Monica, it otherwise had been close to perfect. It seemed everyone on the island had come out to wish the brothers well, which I hoped indicated their venture would turn out to be even more successful than they’d hoped.
I stepped into the back hallway, which provided access to the back door and emergency access outside the building but was locked to prevent anyone sneaking inside. In addition, the hallway led to the business office, the men’s and women’s bathrooms, and the storage room. The office was supposed to be locked when Aiden, who handled the business end of things, wasn’t working. While the brothers didn’t have a lot of expensive equipment, the office did house a fairly new computer plus the safe, where change for the cash drawer was kept.
I walked past the bathrooms and opened the door to the storage room. It was dark, so I turned on the overhead light. A quick scan of the room revealed the mop, leaning against the back wall. The bucket was nearby, as was a broom and dustpan. I took several steps forward and was about to step over a tarp that had been tossed over something when I realized the object that was sticking out just a bit from the bottom of it was a human foot.

******

“Okay, walk me though everything that happened after I left to respond to the accident,” Ryan Finnegan, the island resident deputy as well as my brother-in-law, asked after I’d called him to return to the bar.
I took a deep breath and thought about Danny before I answered. The first thing Finn had done after arriving was to separate everyone left on the premises. He was interviewing us each separately, and I knew I had to tell the truth, but no matter how I spun this, it wasn’t going to look good for my younger brother. “Monica and I got into a fight,” I began. “She started it and I guess she ended it too, but I did manage to bring her to her knees at one point.”
“So it was a physical altercation?”
I nodded. “She bumped into me and knocked me to the floor. Once I managed to push the table that had fallen on top of me to the side, I jumped up and pulled her arm behind her back. I learned that in my self-defense class, and it brought her to her knees. She started screaming like I was killing her or something. Danny came over and told me to let her go, which I did grudgingly. I released her and she stood up and slapped me, and Danny grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the hallway.”
“And after that?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see her again. I assume Danny gave her a stern talking-to, then sent her out the back door to avoid another scene.”
“That’s exactly what Danny said happened,” Finn confirmed. “Did the two of you discuss your response?”
I glared at Finn. “Really? Do you actually think this was some sort of an elaborate cover-up to get Monica out of my hair permanently?”
Finn lowered his notepad. “I don’t think Danny killed Monica. And I don’t think the two of you were part of some plot. But a woman is dead and you just admitted that Danny pulled her into the hallway, which was the last you saw of her.”
“I know how it looks, but you have to believe Danny is telling you the truth. If he said he showed Monica to the back door, he did.”
“So how did she get back in? The back door automatically locks when it’s closed, which allows one-way access out of the building but not inside. I haven’t had a chance to interview everyone who was here, but I called Tripp, who offered to keep an eye on the front door after I was called away, and he didn’t remember Monica coming back in through the front door after Danny hauled her away.” Tripp Brimmer had been the deputy for Madrona Island prior to his retirement.
I leaned back in my chair and let out a groan. “I know how it looks,” I repeated, “but the bathrooms are down that hallway. A lot of people used them during the evening. The back door opens from the inside because it’s a fire exit. Even if Monica didn’t come back in through the front door, anyone could have opened the back door and let her back in once Danny tossed her out. All she had to do was text someone inside to help her.”
“I suppose that’s true, but so far, no one I’ve spoken to remembers seeing her after Danny hauled her away. If she came back in, why didn’t she return to the party?”
“Maybe whoever let her in is the one who killed her. We both know she was a loose cannon. I’m sure she made a lot of enemies, years ago and since she’s been back. I’m sure we’re going to come up with a long list of people who had motive to want her out of their lives, including me, and no, I didn’t do it.”
“I agree she made a lot of enemies. And I agree we’ll eventually come up with a long list of possible suspects who could have let her back in and then killed her. However, given the fact that Danny is the prime suspect at this point, and he’s my brother-in-law, the sheriff is sending someone over from San Juan Island. Mitch Bronson will take over the investigation into Monica’s death.”
“Mitch? Mitch hates Danny.”
“He has reason to dislike him after Danny had an affair with Mitch’s ex, but he’s convinced the sheriff he’s over his ex and the entire incident with Danny is in the past. He convinced the sheriff he’s able to be impartial, and apparently, the sheriff believed him. Given that Mitch used to live on Madrona Island, the sheriff realizes he has relationships with the individuals who’ll serve as witnesses. I’m not saying I agree, but the sheriff has decided Mitch is a good person to take over. There wasn’t a thing I could say to change his mind.”

 

 

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Finding Courage

Finding Courage – Book 3 in the Rescue Alaska Series – publishes September 11. Here is a preview.

 

 

Chapter 1
Saturday, October 13

His pulse quickened as they approached. He’d waited so long. Too long. He closed his eyes and reveled in the memory, which didn’t come as a gentle wave but as a surge of agony from the depths of his personal hell. He’d craved the searing pain, the deeply felt anguish. It was only during these moments, when he was sure he would drown in a river of longing, that he felt truly alive.

On the surface, the rescue seemed fairly routine. Two teenage boys had gone hiking earlier that morning. They were only supposed to be gone a couple of hours but had failed to return by the time they’d agreed to meet with the families for lunch. The father of one of the boys had gone looking for them, and when he was unable to find them after a couple of hours, he’d called the Rescue Alaska Search and Rescue Team, of which I, Harmony Carson, am a member. It was fall in Alaska, which meant the days were becoming shorter toward the endless night of winter. Although the daytime temperatures were mild for this time of the year, the overnight low promised to dip well below freezing. Normally, we like to interview the person making the call, but the man said he was heading toward Devil’s Gulch, where he was certain the boys had been planning to hike, and the reception there was sketchy, so the information we had to go on was limited. By the time the call came through, the sun had begun its descent toward the jagged peak of the distant mountain, so we knew there was no time to lose.

Jake Cartwright, my close friend and brother-in-law, had taken the call. I was already at Neverland, the bar Jake owned and where I worked as a waitress, as was S&R team member Wyatt Forrester, who worked part time there as a bartender. Jake had made a quick decision to employ the team members present to look for the boys, so he and his S&R dog, Sitka, me and my S&R dog, Yukon, Wyatt, and team member Austin Brown, who happened to be in the bar having a drink, set off with a feeling of urgency, given the sharp drop in temperature and impending darkness.

“Jake to Harmony,” Jake said over the two-way radio we all carried as we traveled toward our destination.

“Go for Harmony,” I answered. We’d spread out to cover more ground in the event the boys had either doubled back or taken another route. We knew if we didn’t find them before then, once we reached the narrow entrance to the gulch, we’d all converge into a single unit.

“Have you managed to pick up anything?” Jake referred to my ability to psychically connect to those victims I was meant to help rescue. My ability, which I oftentimes considered a curse, had come to me during the lowest point in my life. My sister Val, who had become my guardian after our parents were killed in an accident, had gone out on a rescue. She’d become lost in a storm, and although the team tried to find her, they came up with nothing but dead ends. She was the first person I connected to, and the one I most wanted to save. I couldn’t save Val, but since then, I’ve used my gift to locate and rescue dozens of people. I couldn’t save them all, but today, I was determined that our search would lead us to the missing boys.

“No,” I answered, frustration evident in my voice. “Which is odd. Even if the boys are uninjured, they must be scared. The temperature has dropped and the sun is beginning to set. The fact that I’m not getting anything at all is concerning me.”

There are really only three reasons I can think of when I don’t pick up something, even a small whisper, during a rescue. The most common is that the person who’s been reported missing isn’t really missing at all. They might not have checked in with the person who reported them missing, but they were perfectly safe, not in physical pain or mental duress. I hoped that would turn out to be the case with these two boys.

The second commonest reason I’m unable to pick up a psychic connection is because the person I’m trying to reach is either unconscious or already dead. That’s the reason I least hope to confirm, but at times, the person we’re trying to find has already taken his final breath before we even begin our search.

And the third reason I’m occasionally unable to make a connection is because the person in need of rescue senses me but is blocking me. This rarely occurs, but it’s possible.

“Is Sitka picking up anything?” I asked. Even if I was unable to connect, I’d think Sitka would pick up something. We didn’t have anything with the boys’ scent to help direct the dogs today, so they’d been instructed to find anyone who might be in the area. Having a specific scent to track worked a lot better, but at this time of the year, when there weren’t many people out hiking, if anyone was around, the dogs should be able to locate them.

“No. Nothing specific at least, but he does seem to sense someone,” Jake answered. “If the boys came this way, as the father seemed to think they had, he’ll find them. If they veered off in another direction, though, we might have a real problem. Given the anticipated overnight temps, it’s important to find them as quickly as possible. We’re going to go on, but I’d like you to take a short break and really try to connect. If you sense something, let us know.”

“Okay.” I stopped walking and looked around. “I don’t have a lot to go on, but I’ll try.”

“The man I spoke to said the boys’ names are Mark and Andrew. They’re both fourteen and have dark hair and dark eyes. That’s all I got from him before he cut out.”

I signed off, then sat down on a large rock. I instructed Yukon to sit and stay next to me, then I closed my eyes. I relaxed my mind and focused on the information I had. Mark and Andrew. Scared, most likely. Possibly injured. Dark hair, dark eyes.

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

I tried again. I allowed whatever images that came to me to pass through my mind. I hoped if they were out there, their psyches would somehow find mine.

Still nothing.

I had an intuition that the man who’d called Jake to report the missing teens had been less than honest. If I had to guess, this whole thing was a hoax. It happened from time to time, although I had no idea why anyone would do such a thing. Still, if the boys actually were in the area and were in some sort of trouble, it was likely I’d pick up an echo of fear if nothing else. I was about to give up my quest to make a connection and had stood up to move on when a feeling of sorrow pierced my heart with such intensity it left me gasping for air.

Oh God. My hand clenched my chest.

My instinct was to break the connection, but I knew if I wanted to locate the source of the pain I needed to maintain it, so I took a deep breath and opened my heart to the anguish. I allowed the pain to envelop me as I tried to figure out who it was I’d connected to. I could sense the distress was emotional rather than physical. Someone was dealing with intense grief. No, not grief, longing. The suffering was deep and real, but there was something else as well. I frowned. In the midst of the sorrow was anticipation.

I focused harder. I knew I hadn’t connected to the boys but someone else. Someone older. I could sense a darkness. An emptiness. As if the soul of the person I’d connected with had been drained of all life. I felt the individual try to pull back. He knew I’d made a connection and was trying to push me away, but I resisted. I tried to go deeper, but then I saw it. My eyes flew open.
My hand flew to my mouth. I was sure I was going to be sick, but I thrust the nausea aside. “Harmony to Jake.”

“Go for Jake.”

“It’s a trap. Pull back. Pull back now.”

In that instant, there was a loud crash as the mountain above the narrow opening to the gulch exploded, sending tons of dirt and rock to the path below. I turned and ran as fast as I could. Tears streamed down my face, but I didn’t really notice. I felt fear, and pain, and death.

Oh God.

I ran faster still. Yukon was running in front of me. He must have sensed where to go because he never wavered. When I arrived at the place where the dirt and rock had settled, I found Sitka standing over Jake, who appeared to be unconscious.

“Jake.” I ran to where he was lying on the hard ground and felt for a pulse. I let out a breath of relief when I saw he had one. He had a bump on his head but appeared to be otherwise uninjured. I grabbed my radio and called Sarge, who was holding down the fort at the base. “Harmony to Sarge.”

“Go for Sarge.”

“There’s been an accident. A landslide. Find Jordan. Have her meet Dani at the helipad. We’re going to need an air evacuation. And Sarge, tell them to hurry.”

With that, I stood up and slowly looked around. I wasn’t sure where Austin and Wyatt were. Had they been with Jake? In front of him? On another trail altogether?

I heard Jake groan. I turned to find both Sitka and Yukon licking his face. I knelt down next to him. “Are you okay?”

Jake put his hand to his head. “What happened?”

“Landslide. You were hit in the head with something. You blacked out but appear to be otherwise okay. Where were Wyatt and Austin before the mountain came down?”

Jake sat up. His face paled. “In front of me.”

I looked down at Sitka and Yukon. “Find Wyatt. Find Austin.”

The dogs ran on ahead, and I knew I needed to follow, but the dizziness and nausea I’d kept at bay had returned. I was fine, I reminded myself. I’d seen something I’d need to process, but the most important thing was to find my friends. I stood up and looked at the spot in front of me, where the trail had once been. This was bad. Really bad.

It didn’t take the dogs long to find Wyatt. He’d managed to find a place next to the wall of the canyon to crouch down, avoiding most of the debris from above. After a bit of back and forth, we determined he was trapped and hurt. Jake managed to get up despite his head injury to help me dig him out. It was a long, arduous process because each rock needed to be lifted and set aside. I don’t know how we found the strength to do it, but when I saw Wyatt’s face, bruised but alert, I wanted to cry in relief.

His leg was broken and his shoulder dislocated but he didn’t appear to have any life-threatening injuries. By the time Jake and I had freed him, the sun had set, but we could hear Dani’s chopper in the distance. I wasn’t sure I had any strength left, but we weren’t done. “Find Austin,” I said to the dogs, even though I suspected he was gone. I’d been able to sense Wyatt as the dogs looked for him, but when I focused on Austin, all I found was silence. Of course, if he was unconscious I might not be able to make a connection, so there was that hope for me to cling to. I tried to keep up as the dogs scrambled over the rubble. Wyatt hadn’t been all that far in front of Jake and so hadn’t been in the area of largest destruction, but the farther toward the center of the landslide the dogs traveled, the more certain I was Austin was gone. By the time Dani had landed the chopper, Sitka alerted. He’d found Austin.

Sometimes all you can do is what you have to do. Dani had brought Jordan and Sarge with her, so they helped load Wyatt into the chopper, where Jordan went to work on his injuries. Once Wyatt was in Jordan’s hands, Dani and Sarge helped us retrieve Austin’s body. When we’d freed him from the rubble, it was completely dark and the temperature had dropped at least thirty degrees. Jake was still dizzy from his head injury, and we couldn’t all fit in the chopper at the same time, so Jordan went with Dani, who flew Wyatt and Jake to the hospital, while Sarge waited with the dogs and me. Austin’s body would be airlifted down as well, but it was more important to see to the injured.

“It wasn’t an accident,” I said to Sarge after we’d built a fire for warmth, then settled in to wait for Dani to come back for us.

“What do you mean, it wasn’t an accident?”

I tilted up my head so I could more clearly see the northern lights overhead. I wanted to embrace the breathtaking beauty that could be found in the Alaskan wilderness, but all I could feel was grief. “In the brief moment before the mountain exploded, I connected with someone in so much pain it was almost unbearable. I felt the rawness of exposed emotion as grief was channeled into rage.” I lowered my head and looked at Sarge. “Someone lured us up here. Someone set off explosives and intentionally caused the landslide. I have no doubt the intention was to bury us all, but I’d stopped to try to make a connection, so I was well behind the others. When I realized what was happening, I was able to warn Jake, which gave him maybe a second to retreat.” I swallowed as a lump of emotion clogged my throat. “Jake told me that he’d called to the others, but the mountain was already coming down and they were too far ahead.”

Sarge was silent for a moment. I imagined he needed that time to try to process what I’d just said. To lose a member of the team to a random landslide was bad enough; to lose him to a madman was another thing entirely. “So you’re saying Austin was murdered.”

I nodded. “Yes. That’s what I’m saying.” I took a deep breath as my entire body began to shake.

“Are you okay?” Sarge looked me in the eye. He put his hands on my shoulders and gave me a little shake.

“I’m okay. It’s just that…” I couldn’t continue. I tried to speak, but at that moment I couldn’t even breathe. I felt my heart pounding in my chest as a flash of memory seared through my mind.

“Just that what?” Sarge said persuasively. “You didn’t finish what you were saying.”

I shook my head. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want to remember.

“You know you can trust me.”

I nodded. Sitka and Yukon were sitting so close to me, they were practically in my lap. I could sense their distress. I needed to pull myself together, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that.
“I want to help you, but you need to finish your thought,” Sarge insisted.

I put my arms around the dogs and took comfort in their warmth. I let them lick the tears from my face, and then I answered. Softly at first, but as my voice found its footing, I went on with more intensity. “In that moment, when I connected to whoever set off the dynamite that caused the landslide, I saw something else. A memory. Not my memory, his memory.”

Sarge frowned. “Okay. What was it?”

“It was Val.” I felt my body begin to shake again. “He was with her. The man who killed Austin was with Val when she died.”

Standard

Finding Answers

 

Finding Answers, book 2 in my new Rescue Alaska Paranormal Mystery series, will launch on May 29th. A preview of chapter 1 is included below.

About the book:

Rescue Alaska is the eighth series by USA Today Bestselling Author Kathi Daley. It is a fast moving mystery series with a paranormal twist.

Rescue Alaska is a small town in northern Alaska where visitors come to hike and ski. Harmony Carson is a lifelong resident who volunteers as a member of the local search and rescue team. Harmony has a unique gift which she often considers a curse. She is able to ‘see’ the individuals she is meant to help rescue, and more often than not she can feel their fear and their pain as well. When she isn’t aiding in a rescue, Harmony works at Neverland – the bar owned by her brother in law Jake, and volunteers at the local animal shelter. Harmony lives in a rustic cabin with six dogs, four cats, six kittens, eight rabbits, and a blind mule named Homer.

In the second book in the series, Jake and Harmony are in the process of training a new search and rescue dog when they get a call that a four year old boy has gone missing from the cabin his family rented while on vacation. They join the search and rescue team, along with the local police, in the hope of finding the child before it is too late. Along the way they discover the freshly dumped body of an important member of the community. The police are stumped as to why this popular town resident would have been murdered, until a second community member goes missing and a disturbing pattern begins to emerge.

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Preview: 

Chapter 1
Monday, June 18

He watched the boy skipping rocks across the clear, still water. From the cover of dense forest, he listened to the childish squeals of delight as the flat, hard surface of the stone met the firm, unyielding force of the lake. Each hop resulted in an ever-widening web of rings, each ring larger yet less intense than the one that came before. Life, he mused, was like those rings. The farther you traveled from the point of origin, the wider your reach, but the less intense the effect. He’d spent a lifetime struggling to affect change in the larger rings, but now, he’d decided, it was time to avenge the iniquities of his past, to claim the inner ring as his own.

Vinnie Truman had been missing for just over an hour. The four-year-old with the sandy blond hair, big green eyes, and a smattering of freckles had been playing with his eight-year-old brother, Kip, and six-year-old sister, Cammie, in the yard of the cabin his parents, Jim and Joan, had rented for their summer vacation. No one saw Vinnie wander away. No one could explain why he would have.

Both Jim and Joan swore they’d been keeping an eye on their children as they grilled burgers on the deck just off the kitchen. When we walked in, Joan had been telling Officer Houston that she’d only looked away for a minute and had no idea how Vinnie could simply have disappeared.

“She’s lying,” I whispered to my partner, Jake Cartwright, the Rescue, Alaska Search and Rescue captain.

“Why do you say that?” Jake asked, his eyes narrowing as he scanned the room, seemingly taking in the climate around us.

I looked toward the short blond woman who was wringing her hands in distress as she clung to the sturdy arm of the uniformed officer she was speaking to. “Her blouse is buttoned wrong, her feet are bare, and her hair is mussed. There may have been grilling going on, but it wasn’t in the kitchen, and they weren’t focused on their children.”

Jake snorted, I was sure, to suppress a chuckle. “Play nice,” he whispered as he stepped forward to greet the officer in charge.

“You got here fast,” Hank Houston, a tall, broad-shouldered man with chiseled features, dark hair, dark eyes, and a serious way about him, commented as he reached out to Jake.

“We were in the area,” Jake responded as he shook the man’s hand.

“This is Jim and Joan Truman,” Houston introduced the obviously distressed couple. “And this is Jake Cartwright from Rescue, Alaska.”

“Don’t worry. We’re going to do everything we can to find your boy,” Jake said, his voice gentle. He turned and gestured to me and the two dogs with us. “This is my teammate, Harmony Carson, and our canine helpers, Sitka and Yukon.”

“Officer Houston said he called for the search-and-rescue team,” Joan said through her tears. “There are only two of you.” I could see the woman was on the verge of hysteria, which could only serve to make the situation worse. “He’s just a little boy. He could be injured and is probably scared. Two just won’t do.”

“There are a half dozen police officers looking for your boy,” Houston assured her. “The search-and-rescue squad is well trained and familiar with the area. They can cover a lot of ground with just a few people and are here to lend a hand. I can assure you, ma’am, we’re doing everything we can to find Vinnie.”

Jake turned and looked at Joan. I watched the hard lines of his face soften as he took her hand in his. He’d been doing this a long time. He knew what to do: offer hope but get what you needed. “Harmony and I were running training exercises in the area when the call came in, so we came straight over, but we have four other highly trained members of our team in transit. We’ll do everything in our power to find your boy.”

Joan’s face softened slightly as I imagined her clinging to that promise. I watched as she smiled slightly at Jake and then looked doubtfully toward the dogs. “Can they find him? That one looks so young.”

Jake’s hand visibly tightened on Joan’s. “Yukon is still a puppy, but he’s been doing very well with his training, and Sitka is a veteran search-and-rescue dog. He has dozens of rescues under his belt. He’s one of the best at what he does, and I know he’ll do his very best to find your boy. We’re going to need your help, however. The most important thing you can do now is to stay strong. Can you do that?”

The woman nodded.

“Okay, good.” Jake shot her a look of approval. That seemed to calm her somewhat. “First, I’ll need a recent photo of Vinnie.”

The man Houston had introduced as Vinnie’s father handed Jake a photo he’d been holding since we’d arrived. Jake looked at it, then handed it to me. I tried to ignore the noise in the room and focus on the curious eyes and crooked grin of the boy we’d been tasked to find.

“I’ll need a couple of pieces of clothing Vinnie’s worn,” Jake added. “The more recently they were worn, the better. Perhaps his pajamas.”

“I’ll get them,” Vinnie’s dad said, seeming grateful for something to do.

Jake nodded at him, then turned his attention back to Vinnie’s mother. “How long have you been staying at this cabin?”

“Almost a week.” She ran a hand over her face.

“And I understand Vinnie has been missing about an hour?” Jake continued.

Vinnie’s mother nodded. “Yes. We tried looking for him ourselves for a while before we called the police.”

Jake continued. “Is there anywhere you’ve walked in the past week that seemed to fascinate Vinnie? Anywhere he might want to return to?”

Vinnie’s mother shook her head. “No. He was supposed to stay in the yard. I only looked away for a minute.”

Jake looked at me. “Are you picking up anything?”

I shook my head. “Not yet.” Jake didn’t bother to explain to Jim and Joan that I was often able to connect with people I was destined to help rescue. It certainly wasn’t an exact science, and I wasn’t always able to do it, but I felt as emotionally connected to the child in the photo as I felt irritated by the woman who’d been canoodling with her husband rather than watching her children.

“Where was the last place you saw your son, ma’am?” I asked as I tried to get a visual image that could help me to get a read on the boy.

“I don’t know. I can’t remember. It happened so suddenly.” The woman was gesturing wildly with her hands, as if to make me, to make us all, understand. “One minute he was there and the next he was gone.” A fresh stream of tears started down the woman’s face. “I only looked away for a minute.”

“So you’ve said,” I responded as I glanced down at the photo once again. I know it isn’t my job to judge the actions of the people we’re tasked to help, and I didn’t have children, so I wasn’t an expert when it came to the supervision of the under-ten crowd, but what I did know was that if I ever did have a child, which was highly unlikely, I wouldn’t leave him or her unattended in the Alaskan wilderness.

“You’ll find my boy?” Vinnie’s mother pleaded after I glanced up from the photo.

“We’ll try,” I answered. The team I belonged to was one of the best anywhere, our survival record unmatched. Still, I’d learned at an early age that when you’re battling Mother Nature, even the best teams occasionally came out on the losing end. I looked at Jake. “I’m going to head outside with the dogs. I might have better luck in a quiet environment.”

After leaving the house, I sat down on a bench and instructed both dogs to sit at my feet. Sitka was an old pro at this sort of thing and waited patiently for the hunt to begin, while Yukon, sensing that something important was up, danced around on the end of his lead. I scratched him behind the ears before instructing him, again, to sit and wait. Thankfully, he did. Yukon had so much raw talent, I was certain he was going to be as good a search-and-rescue dog as Sitka eventually, but he was less than a year old and, at times, still easily distracted.

Once Yukon settled into the wait position next to Sitka, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I’m not sure why I’m able to connect psychically with those I’m meant to rescue. It isn’t that I can feel the pain of everyone who’s suffering; it seems to be only those we’re meant to help that find their way onto my radar. I’m not entirely sure where the ability comes from, but I know when I acquired it. When I was seventeen, my sister Val, who was also my legal guardian after our parents’ death in a car accident, went out on a rescue. She got lost in a storm, and although the team tried to find her, they came up with nothing but dead ends. I remember sitting at the command post, praying harder than I ever had. I wanted so much to have the chance to tell Val how much I loved her and, suddenly, there she was, in my head. I could feel her pain, but I also felt the prayer in her heart. I knew she was dying, but I could feel her love for me as her life slipped away. I’d tried to tell the others I knew where she was, but they’d thought my ramblings were those of an emotionally distraught teenager dealing with the fallout of shock and despair. When the team eventually found Val’s body exactly where and how I’d told them they would, they began to believe I’d made a connection with the only family I’d had left in the world.
Since then, I’ve used my gift to locate and rescue dozens of people. I couldn’t save them all, but today, I was determined that our search for Vinnie would result in a check in the Save column. I tried to focus on the image of the child with the mischievous grin. I sensed water and was picking up the feeling of curiosity rather than fear. That was good. Chances are, as I suspected, the boy had wandered off chasing a rabbit or some other small creature and hadn’t even realized he was lost yet. It was a warm day, and Vinnie’s mother had assured us that he wore jeans, tennis shoes, and a hooded sweatshirt, so at least we didn’t have the elements to worry about, as we did with so many of the winter rescues on which we were called out.

I heard Yukon begin to whine. I opened my eyes and saw team members Wyatt Forrester, Dani Matthews, Landon Stanford, and Austin Brown walking toward us. Yukon stood up, preparing to greet some of his favorite people.

“Sit and wait,” I reminded the pup.

He plopped his butt on the ground but continued to wag his tail. Beside him, Sitka thumped his tail without having moved an inch.

The group stopped several feet short of the dogs. The animals were working, so playful scratches and enthusiastic kisses would have to wait.

“Any news?” Dani asked.

“Jake is inside, talking to the parents. I’m sure he’ll be out soon. I haven’t been able to establish a clear connection to the boy, but I sense water near his current location. I don’t think he realizes he’s lost. I sense curiosity but not fear.”

Wyatt was about to say something when Jake walked out of the house with two plastic bags, each containing a piece of clothing Vinnie had worn.

“Anything?” Jake asked me.

I told him what I’d just told the others.

“There are two bodies of water nearby,” Jake said. “Eagle Lake is about a half mile up the mountain and Glacier Lake is about a half mile down the mountain from here.” Jake looked around, as if sizing up the situation. “The family has hiked in both directions within the past twenty-four hours. It’s likely the dogs will pick up the boy’s scent in either direction, at least initially. We’ll divide into two groups. I’ll take Sitka, Dani, and Austin and head up the mountain. Harmony and Yukon can work with Wyatt and Landon and head toward the lower lake.” Jake looked at me. “If Yukon picks up a strong scent, radio and we can discuss a strategy. If you make a stronger connection to Vinnie, or are able to pick up anything more specific, let us know.”

Jake, as Sitka’s handler, and me, as Yukon’s, each took a plastic bag. Once we’d cleared the yard, we let our dogs sniff the piece of clothing, telling them repeatedly, “This is Vinnie; find Vinnie.” When the dogs seemed to understand what it was we were asking, we took them off their leads, then followed. I trailed directly behind Yukon, while Wyatt walked parallel to my route to the right and Landon paralleled to the left.

Once Sitka had a scent, he was usually very focused on the task at hand, so the odds of Jake and his team finding Vinnie if he had traveled up the mountain were great. Yukon, on the other hand, was pretty green. He had been abandoned on my doorstep five months earlier, and I, as I always did, had taken him in. Over the course of the next month, I’d worked to teach him the house rules. During his training, I’d noticed what I felt was an innate ability to find whatever it was I sent him to look for. I spoke to Jake, and he agreed to help me train him for search and rescue. We’d discussed needing a second dog. Yukon caught on to the training like a fish to water, and although he’d only been training for a few months, he’d already been successful in locating the victim in five different simulations. Of course, a real rescue was a lot more intense than a simulation for both dog and handler, and this was the first time he’d participated in a real rescue without Sitka by his side to show him how it was done.

Yukon headed into the dense foliage of the nearby forest and I followed. I glanced at Wyatt, who was perhaps fifty yards to my right, and then Landon, who was fifty yards to my left. They nodded, letting me know they were able to follow despite the rough terrain. I glanced at Yukon, who sniffed the air and headed deeper into the forest. While we searched, I kept an eye on him, but basically let him do his thing. After several minutes, he alerted, showing interest where a fallen tree blocked the path. “Did you find something?” Yukon sniffed the log and wagged his tail. “Good boy.” I looked around and called Vinnie’s name. Nothing. I stood perfectly still and closed my eyes. I waited for a vision to appear. I could sense the boy, and, as before, he didn’t seem frightened. But there was something. Something dark. Something menacing. I tried to hone in on it, but I couldn’t get a clear reading, so I tied a flag to a tree branch to mark the spot, then took the pajama top out of the bag. I once again held it under Yukon’s nose. “This is Vinnie. Find Vinnie.” Yukon set off down the trail. I went after him.

I knew once Vinnie realized he was lost, fear would overcome him. That would help me to connect with him, yet I hoped for his sake we’d find him before he became terrified. The forest was thick with evergreens and underbrush. Yukon had left the trail after we’d come across the fallen log, which meant Vinnie most likely had left the trail as well. The area was home to a variety of wildlife, including grizzlies, wolves, and cougars. It was dangerous for anyone to veer off the established trail, but it was especially dangerous for little boys who had no idea that danger lurked in the dark places beyond the clearing.

It wasn’t easy to both follow Yukon and focus on Vinnie. If we didn’t either hear from Jake or find him in the next few minutes, I’d call to the dog to take a break.

As we approached the lake, Yukon alerted again. As before, I stopped and looked around. I called for Vinnie and then listened. I closed my eyes and tried desperately to make a connection. This time, the vision was a bit clearer. Vinnie had stopped what he was doing to look around. He must have realized he was lost and, as predicted, curiosity had been replaced by fear.

“Harmony to Jake,” I said through the radio.

“Go ahead.”

“I have a vision. He’s near Glacier Lake.”

“We’re on our way.”

I closed my eyes and focused again. He was terrified. Fear and panic fueled the boy as he ran through the underbrush. I cringed as I saw him trip over something. Pain. Now the fear was mingled with pain. He got up and tried to run, but the pain was too much. When he fell again, he simply sat on the ground, clutching his ankle and screaming for help. I took a deep breath. There was something else. Darkness. Danger.

I opened my eyes and looked at Yukon. “Find Vinnie. We need to find Vinnie.” I gave him another sniff of the pajama top and waited. He sniffed the air, then took off at a run. I tried unsuccessfully to keep up with him and was about to call him back when I heard three sharp barks.

“Vinnie,” I called as loudly as I could.

“Here. I’m here.”

I headed down the trail as quickly as I could manage. Sprawled on the ground was a terrified little boy with his arms around Yukon, who gently licked the tears from his face.

“Good boy,” I said to Yukon. I knelt next to Vinnie. “Are you hurt?”

“My ankle. I hurt my ankle.”

I radioed Jake to let him know I’d found Vinnie. He would need to be carried back to the cabin, so I waited for Wyatt and Landon to catch up.

“Other than your ankle, do you hurt anywhere?” I asked.

The boy shook his head. He was smiling now that Yukon had settled in next to him. “I was lost. I was on the trail, but then I looked around and nothing looked right. I was so scared. I ran as fast as I could. I wanted to get home, but then I fell.”

I looked back the way Vinnie had traveled. “Did you trip on a log?”

Vinny wiped the tears from his dirt-streaked face. “I don’t know. I didn’t see.”

“Help is on the way. We’ll get you home in no time. You’re safe now.”

“Mama will be mad. I’m not supposed to leave the yard.” The boy began to sob. “I’m going to get a time-out. I hate time-outs.”

I pulled my sweatshirt over my head and used it to wipe away the boy’s tears. “I can’t say for certain, but I think your mom will be so happy to see you that she might forget to be mad. Still, the rule about staying in the yard is a good one. You could have been in real trouble if Yukon hadn’t found you. There are all sorts of things out here that can hurt a little boy.”

“Like bears?”

I nodded. “Yes, like bears. And cougars, and wolves, and all sorts of animals that might be lurking nearby, waiting to attack.”

The boy began to sob hysterically. Yukon began to lick his face frantically to offer comfort. Okay, so maybe I oversold the danger angle. I didn’t mean to traumatize the kid; I just wanted him to understand the potential consequences of his actions.

“What’s wrong?” Wyatt said, arriving in the nick of time as far as I was concerned. He bent down and picked the boy up in his arms. “Are you hurt?”

“No.” The boy began to hiccup from hysteria.

“So why all the tears?”

“I was bad and a bear might have ate me.”

Wyatt looked at me and raised a brow.

I lifted a shoulder. “It’s not like I have experience talking to kids. Dogs are more my thing.”

Wyatt winked at me. “You did good. Yukon too. Let’s get this scared little boy back to his parents.”

“Wait,” I said as Wyatt turned to head back to the cabin. I stood up and slowly scanned the forest as Landon arrived. I could still sense the darkness I’d picked up before. I couldn’t identify what I was feeling, but an iciness settled into my chest. I felt pain and hopelessness and death. “There’s someone else. Someone near death.”

I closed my eyes and concentrated. The image of a man’s face filtered through my mind, but it was blurry and out of focus. It was as if the man was passing in and out of consciousness, letting me in and then pushing me out. “Oh God,” I whispered.

“What is it?” Wyatt asked. “What do you see?”

I glanced at Vinnie, who looked scared to death. I tried to level my voice despite the intense grief that had gripped my body. “Go ahead and take Vinnie back to his parents. Landon, Yukon, and I will try to find the source of my vision.”

Wyatt looked uncertain, but he didn’t argue. He nodded and began walking back toward the cabin. When he was out of sight, I closed my eyes and tried to see the face of the man again. Landon stood quietly next to me, holding Yukon’s lead. He took my hand in his free one and held on tight. He’d been with me long enough to know how draining this was for me.

“Anything?” Landon asked in a voice so soft I barely heard him.

“It isn’t focused. It’s a man. I can’t see his face. He’s hurt. His image is fading in and out. He doesn’t want to let me in.” My breath caught as I connected just in time to experience what I was sure was the man’s last breath. I shook my head, then opened my eyes. “He’s gone.”

“Where?”

I looked through the dense forest. “I don’t know. I wasn’t linked for more than a few seconds. He was resisting, but I managed to connect right at the end, when his only choice was to surrender. Now that he’s dead I can’t sense him.” I looked around at the thick trees. “We’ll need help to find him.” I radioed Jake and informed him of the situation, then Landon, Yukon, and I began to search for the man I had seen in my mind.

Jake’s dog, Sitka, had been trained to find missing people as well as those who had already passed on. Yukon was training to follow a specific scent, as we’d just done with Vinnie, but he had no training as a cadaver dog. Our best bet at finding the man whose death I had just experienced was to force myself to remember everything about that moment. Everything I had seen, heard, smelled, and felt.

“The man was lying on the ground,” I said in a soft voice. “He was cold. Weak. Wet, perhaps. He was partially covered, but the purpose of the cover wasn’t to provide warmth but camouflage.”

“You said wet? Is he near the water?” Landon asked.

“Maybe. It’s dark. The trees in the area are dense.” I opened my eyes and scanned the area. I could remember the pain, the fear, the urge to fight, and then the peace that came with the decision to give in and float away from the world toward whatever came next.

“Are you okay?” Landon asked.

I nodded.

Landon used his thumb to wipe a tear from my cheek. “I know it’s painful.”

“It’s okay. I’m okay,” I assured him. There are times I want to run from the images and feelings that threaten to overwhelm and destroy me, but I know embracing the pain and the fear is my only path to the answers I seek. “In the last moment of his life, there was fear, anger, and pain, but something else as well.” I focused harder.

“Acceptance and,” I tried to remember, “penance. He was sorry for something he did and with his last breath was seeking forgiveness.”

“From whom?” Landon asked.

I opened my eyes. “I don’t know. Maybe God. Maybe himself. Maybe someone he’d wronged.” I continued to scan the forest, looking for something familiar. The only thing I could see in my vision was trees, which didn’t help me a bit because there were trees everywhere.

“Do you remember anything from your vision that will help us know where to look?” Landon asked again. “Anything at all that will help us narrow things down?”

“There were trees and it was dark.” I took a breath and forced my mind to calm and focus. “The ground was gently sloped and covered with wild grass.” I bit my lip as I tried to get a feeling for direction. “There.” I pointed into the distance.

Landon set off in the direction I indicated with Yukon at his side. I followed closely behind. Shortly after we’d entered the densest part of the forest, Yukon began to whine.

“Do you have the scent?”

Yukon barked three times.

“Let him go,” I instructed Landon. “He may not be trained to retrieve those who have passed on, but he’s a dog and better able to pick up scent than either of us.”

It didn’t take long. No longer, really, than it took to take a breath for Yukon to find the body. I felt my knees weaken and my stomach lurch. “It’s Pastor Brown.” I gasped as Landon bent down and took a closer look at the man who was partially covered by the thick underbrush.

“If only we’d been a few minutes sooner,” I said to Landon as he pulled away the vines and ferns that someone seemed to have arranged from the man’s body. He knelt and felt for a pulse, then shook his head. The pastor’s throat had been slit and he had a piece of duct tape across his mouth.

“He couldn’t even scream,” I said, as if that somehow made it worse.

“I wonder how he got here,” Landon said.

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Yukon began to growl from deep in his chest as I scanned our surroundings. I didn’t see or hear anything, but my intuition told me that Pastor Brown’s killer was still nearby. “Someone brought him here. Someone who’s still here.”

Landon stood up and looked around. “I don’t see anything. Are you sure you sense a second person?”

“I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I do sense someone. I don’t feel as if he’s a threat to us, though. I’ll call Jake to have him fill Officer Houston in on what we’ve found.”

I made the call, then returned my attention to Landon, who was still standing over the body. We both knew not to touch him because we could destroy evidence, but in that moment not touching was very difficult indeed. I’d felt the man’s life leave his body. There was a voice in my head that demanded I do something better than simply stand there.

“It looks like he’d been swimming,” I said. He was soaking wet, but he was fully dressed, and it was much too cold to have gone swimming in a lake whose source was melting snow, so the idea was probably ridiculous.

“I doubt that, but he is wet,” Landon replied. He nodded to the pastor’s bloody wrists without touching him. “It looks like he was bound at some point, though there are no signs of any ropes here.”

“Maybe he was tossed from a boat and swam to shore,” I suggested. “Once he made it to land, the cold-blooded killer who dumped him in the water slit his throat and left him to die.”

“Maybe,” Landon replied. “Someone tried to camouflage the body. I’m guessing he’d passed out before he died. Maybe he was tossed from a boat and swam to shore before he was killed.” Landon paused and turned his head. “It sounds like the others are almost here.”

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The Mother’s Day Mishap

 

The Mother’s Day Mishap publishes on April 24th. Book 3 in the new Tess and Tilly Cozy Mystery Series is filled with doggy fun and some good old fashion sleuthing. Here is a preview of Chapter 1.

Order Today:  https://amzn.to/2qOLTkH 

 

Chapter 1
Thursday, May 3

They arrived in the middle of the night. Two balls of wet and matted fur tied to a porch railing, huddled together for warmth and comfort as the rain slammed into the small town of White Eagle, Montana, from the east. The note said they were inseparable, brothers who’d shared a womb and eventually a life. Neither had spent time without the other, and, the anonymous person who’d dropped them on Brady’s doorstep asked, if at all possible, could they be placed together?

Placing dogs with just the right owner was a task Brady Baker, local veterinarian and shelter owner, and I, Tess Thomas, mail carrier and shelter volunteer, take great pride in doing better than anyone else, but this pair of medium-sized terriers were proving to be quite a challenge. It wasn’t that they weren’t adorable, with their huge brown eyes and long shaggy fur the color of damp sand; it was that they had never been trained or socialized to respond to or even care about anyone or anything other than each other.

And then they met Tilly.

“It looks like you’re making progress.”

Brady smiled in response to my statement as my golden retriever, Tilly, and I walked into the room where he’d been working on a sit/stay with one of the brothers. It appeared as if the training had been going well until Jagger saw Tilly. Ignoring Brady’s command to stay, he’d run forward to greet her with wiggles and waggles from one end of his shaggy body to the other.

I motioned for Tilly to sit, which she did immediately. Jagger, who Brady estimated to be about eight months old, plopped his butt on the ground right next to her. I praised them both and told them to stay. I walked away and spoke to Brady for a minute, keeping an eye on the pair as I did. After a minute, I motioned for the dogs to come and then sit and stay again. I asked both Jagger and Tilly to repeat the behavior several times, praising both dogs when my hand gesture was met with an appropriate response. When a dog was in training, repetition was key. Experience had shown that if a behavior was repeated often enough, even easily distractible dogs such as Jagger would begin to respond to the hand flip even when Tilly wasn’t around to show him what to do.

Once I’d released them to relax, Jagger came over to say hi. I knelt to greet the terrier and was welcomed with wet, sloppy kisses. The fact that Jagger now seemed delighted to see me when he’d all but ignored me in those first days was progress in my book.

“Where’s Bowie?” I asked about the second terrier.

“In his pen,” Brady answered as his blue eyes met my brown. “I’ve decided the only way I’m going to make any progress training the boys is to separate them for individual sessions. Initially, I tried joint sessions, but that wasn’t getting me anywhere. I figure once I have them responding individually, I can bring them together for training for short periods of time.” Brady bent over and greeted Tilly, allowing her to enthusiastically rain doggy kisses on his face.

“Seems like you have a good plan. How can I help?”

“I’m glad you asked. I hoped you and Tilly would have time to work with the brothers and me on Saturday. Between the clinic and the shelter, it’s hard to make time for the specialized training they need. Besides, Tilly is a good influence on Bowie and Jagger. They seem to settle down and pay more attention when she’s with them.”

Brady had a point. Tilly was an old pro at responding to both hand and verbal signals. When she was around, Jagger and Bowie tended to mimic whatever she was doing.

“Tilly and I would be happy to help,” I answered. “Did you have anything specific in mind?” Brady interviewed prospective doggy parents to find out exactly what they were looking for in a dog. He wanted to ensure that the dogs he placed were perfect matches for their new humans. If the shelter housed a dog who seemed to be compatible overall with one of the humans who came looking for a forever friend, more often than not Brady was willing to provide extra training to ensure the dog met the needs of whoever they’d spend their life with.

“I spoke to Jimmy Early. He came in to adopt one dog, but after we spoke, he said he’d be willing to consider the brothers provided they loved the water, were comfortable on a SUP board, and enjoyed traveling.”

I knew Jimmy. He and his girlfriend, Destiny, operated a paddleboat and stand-up paddleboard concession at the lake during the spring and summer. Once the snow began to fall, they packed up their belongings and took off in their camper for warmer climes. It made sense they’d want to adopt dogs who liked the water and travel. “Have you tried the boys in the water?”

Brady nodded. “They aren’t fans of the wet stuff. Tilly likes to swim. Maybe we can take the boys to the beach on Saturday and Tilly can show them how much fun it is. Once we get them used to the water, we can work on the SUP board. As for traveling, they seem fine riding around in my truck, so I don’t think that will be a problem.”

“Okay. I can do Saturday. Say around ten?”

“Ten would be perfect.”

I paused to put the appointment in my phone calendar. “The reason I’m here now,” I said, once I’d finished the entry, “is because I wanted to pick up some more of that nutrient-dense cat food for the kittens.” I had adopted two rescues of my own, an orange-stripped kitten named Tang and a black kitten with long fur named Tinder. As a shelter volunteer, I was able to purchase quality pet food at Brady’s cost, so it was only the best that my discount, combined with my adequate-but-far-from-generous salary, could buy for my animals.

“I was about to quit for the day,” Brady informed me. “Let me bring Jagger back to his brother and I’ll go to the clinic with you. You can grab the food as well as the flyers I had made up for the adoption event later this month.”

I followed Brady, who was dressed in faded jeans, running shoes, and a dark blue T-shirt. He dressed in slacks, a dress shirt, and a white lab coat when the clinic was open, but when he spent time at the shelter, he dressed down, which was the look I appreciated the most. “Did you decide on a theme for the event?”

Brady’s eyes lit up with enthusiasm. “Speed dating. I’ve arranged to use the football field at the high school. I’m going to section it off into twelve smaller areas using temporary fencing. Each individual pen will have a dog who’s available for adoption. Prospective doggy parents will each be assigned to a pen, where they’ll spend three minutes. When the time’s up, all the people will rotate in a prearranged pattern until everyone has visited all the pens. Once a prospective doggy parent has their visit with each of the twelve dogs, they’ll be able to request up to three dogs to spend additional time with. At the end of the event, prospective parents can fill out an application for the dog of their choice.”

“Are you going to allow for second and third choices just in case everyone wants the same dog?” It seemed that at almost every adoption clinic I’d ever worked, there were interested parties fighting over a few dogs, while others remained homeless.

He nodded. “Some prospective parents don’t do well with this sort of event, and they’re of course welcome to come in during the week to look at the dogs individually, but I’ve done speed-dating events before, and usually, dogs and humans manage to find one another in the time allotted.”

“Sounds like fun. I’ll start putting the flyers up tomorrow while I’m doing my route.”

“If you need more, just ask and I can run some out to you. I want this event to be a success, and I’m hoping we’re starting early enough this time to plaster the entire town.”

“I’ll make sure every bulletin board and store window in White Eagle has a flyer.”

I got the cat food and flyers from Brady’s veterinary clinic, and Tilly and I piled into my Jeep and headed home: a small, rustic cabin outside the town limits of White Eagle. While the plumbing was old and the heater temperamental, the view of the mountains from both my front and back decks was truly spectacular. The cabin was surrounded by national forest and my closest neighbor was far enough away that I couldn’t see any other buildings from any window.

When I pulled into the private drive that led from the highway to the cabin, I spotted my good friend Tony Marconi sitting in his truck in front of the cabin. Tony and I had met in middle school. He was not only the smartest kid in our entire school, but he was also sort of a geek. I’ll admit that when I first met him, I, like the other kids, had made fun of his looks and superior intellect, but after he helped me out with a mystery that resulted in the two of us sharing a pretty huge secret, the tall and gangly genius had grown on me and eventually become one of my very best friends.

Of course, now that he was an adult and had grown into his height, he was not only the smartest man I knew but the sexiest as well. Not that I would ever tell him that. We were, after all, just friends.

“What are you doing here?” I asked as I climbed out of the Jeep and Tony kissed me on the cheek. “Not that I’m not thrilled to see you; I just wasn’t expecting you.”

“I was in town and thought I’d stop by to see if you wanted to have a pizza-and-video-game night. It’s been a while.”

“It has been a while,” I answered as Tilly jumped out of the Jeep and greeted Tony’s dog, Titan, with a wagging tail and tiny leaps of joy. “And I don’t have plans tonight. I wish I’d known what you had in mind. I would have stopped to pick up the food on my way home.”

“No need. I have a pizza warming in your oven and a new microbrew I’ve been wanting to try in your refrigerator.”

After Titan greeted Tilly, he trotted over to say hi to me, while Tilly greeted Tony. “If you had a way into the cabin, why were you waiting out here in your truck?”

“It seemed presumptuous to wait inside. I knew you probably wouldn’t be long, it’s a beautiful evening, and you do have quite the spectacular view here.”

I ruffled Titan behind the ears, then kissed him on the top of the head. “I’m glad you’re here, but you probably should have called. What if I wasn’t free?”

Tony shrugged as Tilly and Titan headed to my front door together. “I would have taken my beer and pizza home. Let me just grab a few things from my truck and I’ll get the game set up.”

“Do you have a new one?”

“I do. It’s called Valley of Atonement. I’ve been asked to test it for a friend. You can help.”

One of the very best things about Tony, second to his good looks, giving nature, kind heart, millions of dollars, and superior brain, was that he knew a lot of people who developed video games and was always being asked to test them and offer advice before they were on the market. Most of the time he asked me and his other friend, Shaggy, to test them out as well.

“I hope you didn’t order pineapple on the pizza,” I said as I walked to the door with Tony trailing behind me.

“I would never get pineapple on any pizza I planned to share with you. There are also no mushrooms, peppers, or tomatoes. All meat, all the way.”

I grinned. “Thanks. I know you love pineapple on your pizza, so I appreciate the sacrifice. Why don’t you set everything up while I change out of my work clothes?” As a mail carrier, I had a uniform I was required to wear every day, but when I was home, it was sweatpants, jeans, or shorts.

I greeted both kittens and headed into my bedroom, where I put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. I pulled my long hair into a ponytail, then returned to the main living area of the cabin, where Tony had the pizza on the table, along with plates, forks, and ice-cold beer. It was a beautiful day and I was tempted to move the dinner outdoors onto my deck, but it was still a little chilly in the evenings, although the snow had melted and the meadows were lush with green grass and colorful wildflowers.

“This really is the best pizza in town,” I said as I took my first bite of the thickly layered pie.

“Having Giovani’s Pizza on a regular basis is one of the things I miss about not living closer to town,” Tony said. “I noticed they had a few new specialties, including a buffalo chicken topping that sounds like it might be fun to try.”

“That does sound good. We’ll have to try it next time.” I slipped a second piece of pizza onto my plate.

“Shaggy loves chicken wings, so I’m betting he’d like to try it as well.” Shaggy owned a video game store, and the two spent quite a bit of time together. “I’m surprised you didn’t bring him with you tonight.”

“I thought about inviting him, but I wanted to talk to you about something.”

I set my slice down. “My dad?”

Tony had been trying to help me track down my father, who supposedly died twelve years ago. For some reason, I had a feeling there was more to his death than I’d been told, so I’d asked Tony to look in to it. Not only had he found what seemed like proof that Dad hadn’t died in the fiery accident, as everyone thought, but there was every indication he could still be alive and living an alternate life.

“No, not your dad,” Tony said.

“Okay.” I couldn’t imagine what Tony would want to discuss with me that he wouldn’t want Shaggy to overhear if it wasn’t regarding my father and his not-so-dead state of being. “Then what is it?”

Tony paused and made eye contact before he continued. Okay, he was making me nervous now. It wasn’t like Tony to hesitate. I watched as a myriad of emotions crossed his face. Eventually, he spoke. “Remember you asked me to check out the man who came to White Eagle to visit your mother over Valentine’s Day?”

“I remember. His name is Romero Montenegro. He lives in Italy, where his family owns a winery. You said he checked out. You said he used to work in a museum but now teaches history at a university in Rome, although he’s been on sabbatical. You said he’d never been married or arrested, though he did have one failed engagement seven years ago. You said he seemed like a good guy. Did you find something else?”

Tony hesitated. Oh, I didn’t like the look on his face. Tony was the sort who was always confident and sure. This look of doubt and indecision didn’t suit him at all.

“What is it?” I asked in a much firmer tone.

“Is your mom still seeing him?” Tony asked.

“He went back to Italy, so I guess she isn’t technically seeing him, but they’re still corresponding. She’s even made some noises to Ruthie and me about taking some time off over the summer so she can go to Italy to visit him. I’ve been trying to talk her out of it. I mean, she’s fifty-six and the mother of two adults, and he’s a forty-two-year-old playboy. I don’t see what she sees in the man. They have absolutely nothing in common.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. I knew what he wasn’t saying. Romero was a total babe in a cover-of-a-romance-novel way. Dark and fit, with a polished air and a wonderful accent. Of course my middle-aged mother would find him attractive. She’d have to be dead not to be. But sizzling-hot sex appeal wasn’t everything. Though in Romero’s case, it might be enough.

“Do you think we can move on from this line of thought?” I asked. “The idea of my mother having those types of feelings sort of grosses me out.”

“I guess I can understand that.”

“So, what’s the deal? Why are we even discussing the Casanova who’s caught my mother’s attention?”

Tony splayed his hands on the table, his long fingers open wide. “I’m not sure why I even continued to look into his past after that initial search, but something felt off, so when I had some free time, I poked around a bit more. Remember I told you that Romero hadn’t been married but he’d had a failed engagement seven years ago?”

“Yeah. So?”

“It looks like he didn’t break up with his fiancée, but she didn’t break up with him either.”

I sat back in my chair and crossed my arms over my chest. “Okay, what are you saying? Is the guy my mom has been fooling around with still engaged?”

“No. He’s not engaged. Romero Montenegro didn’t get married because his engagement failed. The reason he didn’t get married was because his fiancée died. She was, in fact, murdered.”

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