A New Series and a Sample Chapter

I’m really excited to introduce you all to a new series launching this fall. Gooseberry Bay is an open ended series so there are no set number of issues going in. I plan to explore these characters for a while and see how it goes but I can see a lot of potential with this setup.

The series is set in Washington State and features a quaint little town tucked into the end of a beautiful little bay somewhere within the labyrinth known as Puget Sound. The series features Ainsley Holloway, a instigative reporter turned PI, whose father recently died so after finding clues while cleaning out his attic she decides to go searching for answers about her mysterious past. She was raised by the cop who rescued her as a child, and while her life to this point has been full and happy, she always has wondered who she was and where she came from before she was found alone in a burning warehouse. 

 

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Ainsley is first introduced when she visits Holiday Bay and spends a few days as a guest at the inn with Abby and Georgia. After she speaks to Abby and realizes the house in the photo she found within the mementos left behind by her father is most likely located in Washington State and not in Maine, she heads in that direction. If you’d like to start at the very beginning you can find Ainsley’s trip to Holiday Bay here:

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Gooseberry Bay:

A heartwarming mystery series about finding answers and fostering hope while building friendships and embracing the magic of life by the sea and small town holidays.

Ainsley Holloway had come to Gooseberry Bay to find answers about her past. She’d come to find an explanation for the dreams that haunted her after the death of the cop who’d both rescued and raised her. And she’d come to identify the family she couldn’t remember but knew in her heart she’d once belonged to.

Ainsley hoped that by finding these answers, she’d also find healing. She hoped that once she’d resurrected the memories buried deep in her mind, she’d find peace.

The Cottage at Gooseberry Bay is a series about, not only finding answers, but finding hope.

It’s a series about family and friendship.

It’s a series about shared holidays, festivals, and celebrations.

It’s a series about shared heartbreak and hardship.

And it’s a series about the bond that can be forged amongst strangers when tragedy binds two or more individuals with a common goal.

In book 1 in the series, Ainsley arrives in Gooseberry Bay only to find there will be no easy answers as she’d so naively hoped. Unwilling to leave before she gets what she came for, she rents a cottage on the sea where she and her dogs, Kai and Kallie, can settle in and wait.

Her first night in town she meets a young woman who is later found dead. The local sheriff has labeled the death of this young woman a suicide based on a text message she’d sent before she died. But Ainsley, who’d spoken to the victim only hours before the text was sent, isn’t quite as sure of the easy answer the sheriff would like everyone to believe.


An investigative journalist by trade and cops daughter by upbringing, Ainsley never had been the sort to walk away from unanswered questions, so with the help of new friends she meets along the way, she initiates a parallel investigation which seems to indicate the sheriff’s real motivation in trying to sell the suicide angle to the community is to protect the interests of a very rich and very powerful man.

 

Halloween Moon – Chapter 1:

Life, I’ve been led to believe, is a journey of choices, linking the past to the future in a unique sequence that cannot be foretold and will not be complete until the final choice has been made. I like to think I’m the master of my story, weaving a tale I’ve crafted with each decision I’ve made, but as I stood peering across the inlet at the house that had haunted my dreams, I knew in my soul that every choice I’d made up to this point had actually been part of a predestined series of events leading me to this exact place in this exact moment in time.

As I’d envisioned, the house sat impressively on the edge of a tall bluff overlooking an expanse of murky water that seemed to stretch endlessly into the dark sky. I’m certain that on a sunny day, the view from this particular perch would be priceless, but today, as my history and destiny collide, the heavy air settled around the rambling structure, leaving only an imprint chiseled firmly in my mind.

“He’d like it here,” I said to my dogs, Kai and Kallie, who were waiting patiently for me to continue our walk. “It’s odd that I can feel his presence. I have no reason to believe either he or I have ever been here at any point in the past, and yet…”

And yet, a distant memory tugged at my mind. It was blurry and out of focus, and I wasn’t even sure it was a memory and not the remnant of a dream. Still, I supposed it was the and yet that had led to my decision to put my life on hold in order to find the house in the first place.

Glancing at the photo in my hand, I allowed my mind to filter back to the dreams that had become both frequent and vivid during the past several months. There was nothing particularly spectacular or unusual about the image of the woman standing on a porch with two young children, and I’m not sure why I’d even given the photo a second look, yet from the moment I’d first stumbled upon it in my father’s attic, a spark had ignited, which had led to the dreams. Those dreams had fueled my imagination, and eventually planted a seed, which, over time, grew into an obsession. An obsession, I realized, that wouldn’t allow me to rest until I found the answers I’d traveled over three thousand miles to find.

Kai nudged his nose into my hand, causing me to look down once again.

“Is that your subtle way of telling me we should continue on into town and find a place to stay for the night?”

Kai barked once, placing a paw on my leg. I gave him a scratch behind the ear and then called for both dogs to follow me back to the SUV I’d left parked on the side of the road. I popped the hatch, and Kai and Kallie jumped in. Closing the rear door, I checked the latch and then headed toward the driver’s side door. Sliding inside, I turned the key in the ignition, checked my mirrors, and then pulled away from the side of the narrow road that hugged the shoreline leading out to the small town where I hoped to find lodging. The drive through the deeply wooded forest toward the small town was lovely despite the fog, which had begun to lift as I headed south. The recent rain had resulted in a series of small creeks that rolled and trickled down through the pine, hemlock, spruce, cedar, and aspen that covered the mountainside.

Gooseberry Bay was tucked into a forested area that was bursting with color. Vine maples tangled with the wild rose that thrived in the area, creating a breathtaking palette beneath the heavy canopy of the larger trees. I was tempted to stop, dig out my camera, and try to capture the brilliance of the day now that the fog had begun to roll out, but it was late, and I still needed to find a place to stay for a few days. As I neared the small town, a boardwalk appeared to my left. The wooden walkway, which hugged the water for what seemed like miles, was crowded with local vendors peddling their goods and services to the throngs of people who’d turned out to enjoy the near-perfect afternoon. I found the colorful carts, bright yellow pumpkins, and black and orange lights charming. The road forked just after a sign announcing a Halloween festival. Slowing slightly, I took the fork to the right and crossed a narrow bridge that rumbled and groaned as I drove from the road toward the parking area of the inn I’d found with my lodging app.

I parked in the spot designated for those checking in. The inn was a long L-shaped building, with two stories of wood construction, and based on the number of chimneys, there were at least six fireplaces. Planter boxes lined the wooden walkway leading guests to the front door. I had the feeling the boxes were changed out seasonally since they were currently rich with flowers in red, orange, yellow, and gold. The front porch was covered with a line of rocking chairs. Scarecrows, who seemed to be guarding the bright orange pumpkins that were set all about in a haphazard fashion, were tied to the railing, which supported the roof.

Rolling down the windows, I assured the dogs I’d just be a minute and then headed toward the front of the building. I knocked on the front door, wondering if perhaps I should just go on in. The facility was an inn, and therefore should be open to the public, so perhaps knocking wasn’t a requirement.

“Can I help you?” a woman with long dark hair, brown eyes, and a wide grin greeted me.

“My name is Ainsley Holloway. I’m hoping you have a room for a few nights.” I glanced behind me. “One that allows dogs.”

The woman, who looked to be only an inch or two taller than my five-foot two-inch frame, glanced over my shoulder at the two huge dogs waiting patiently for me to return. “Those are big dogs. I bet they weight more than you do.”

“They do. But they’re trained and well behaved. If you rent us a room, I promise they won’t be a problem.”

The woman smiled at the dogs and then looked back in my direction. “I do love dogs and normally would consider your request, but I’m afraid the inn is booked solid. It’s Halloween, you know. The town is famous for our Halloween festival, and with the full moon landing on Halloween this year, there are even more tourists in town than usual.”

I sighed. “I understand. I’d forgotten that it was Halloween or the weekend for that matter until I saw the sign about the Halloween festival. I don’t suppose you can suggest an alternative lodging property that accepts dogs?”

She slowly shook her head. “I’m afraid that finding lodging that will accept two huge dogs is going to be a problem in our little town, especially during this time of the year when tourists come from all around to see the fall colors.”

My smile faded. The dogs and I had camping gear with us, but I’d really been looking forward to a hot shower.

“How long will you be in town?” the woman asked.

I shrugged. “I’m not sure. A few months. Maybe longer.” I glanced back toward the car. “I’m here to do some research, so the duration of my stay is open-ended. I’d hoped to find a place to stay for a night or two while I looked for a more permanent lodging property that would rent to me by the week or even the month.”

The woman rolled her lips and then nibbled on the bottom one gently as she appeared to be considering an idea. “I do know of a place. It’s a cottage and not an inn. I’m afraid it is a bit run down, but it sits right on the water at Gooseberry Bay, which is lovely this time of the year.”

“And you think the owner of this cottage would rent to someone with two dogs?” I glanced back toward the car. “Two large dogs?”

She nodded. “I inherited a large piece of land with five cottages from my uncle, who recently passed away. The four rental cottages are in pretty good repair, but I’m afraid that the cottage Uncle Bucky used as his personal residence is pretty run down. To be honest, the place needs some tender loving care. A lot of it. My plan is to fix it up and then rent it out along with the others, but I’ve been too busy as of late to get to it, so it’s still just sitting there lonely and abandoned. If you don’t mind living in a space that is pretty run down, I’d be willing to rent it to you and your dogs for as long as you want to stay.”

I smiled. “That would be great.”

“I’ve cleared out Uncle Bucky’s personal belongings, but the place will need a good cleaning.”

“I don’t mind. Really. I’m sure you can imagine how hard it is to find lodging with two enormous dogs.”

“I can imagine. And the place, while shabby, is livable. The plumbing is functional, the fireplace has been cleaned and cleared for use, and the electrical seems to be up to code, but the paint is shot, and the flooring is in desperate need of replacing.”

“That’s totally fine,” I assured the woman once again. “The kids and I won’t mind peeling paint or scratched up flooring.”

She nodded. “Okay. Let’s go and take a look. Just let me grab the keys.” She turned back toward the interior of the charming inn, but then turned back. “My name is Hope Masterson, by the way.”

I held out a hand in greeting. “As I said, I’m Ainsley Holloway.” I angled my head toward the car, where the dogs were patiently waiting. “The dogs are Kai and Kallie.”

“I’m happy to meet you. Now let me grab the keys. The cottage is just a couple miles down the road.”

I climbed back into my SUV and followed Hope through town past cute cottage style buildings that lined the road opposite the bay. Just after we passed the harbor, she turned onto a dirt lane that twisted into the woods before opening up to a wide-open space where several parking spaces were marked. “Everyone who lives in the cottages parks here. I’m afraid that means you have to haul groceries and supplies in, but the isolation of each waterfront cottage makes it worth the effort to most.”

“Wow. This is gorgeous,” I said, gasping at the perfection of the whole thing.

“Grab the dogs, and we’ll take a look.”

I walked around my SUV and opened the hatchback. The dogs jumped down onto the dirt lot and sat down beside me, waiting for further direction.

“Can I pet them?” Hope asked.

I looked down at the dog sitting by my left leg. “Kallie approach,” I said in a relaxed, yet firm voice.

Kallie slowly approached Hope and then sat politely just in front of her.

“When you told me your dogs were polite and well trained, I figured that meant they didn’t chew the furniture or pee on the floor, but this dog is amazing.”

“My dad was a cop. He was in the canine unit until he made detective. We always had a dog living with us when I was growing up, and my dad always made sure they had the best training.” I looked down at my best friends. “Kai and Kallie haven’t been officially trained as service dogs, but I got them when they were pups, so they learned manners from an early age.”

After a moment, I called Kallie back and allowed Kai to approach and meet Hope. Normally, I didn’t keep them reigned in quite this tightly, but I wanted to be sure they didn’t do anything that would cause the owner of the little cottage to change her mind about renting it to us.

“The cottages are just down this trail,” Hope said once I’d recalled both dogs.

Hope began to speak as we set off down a well-worn dirt trail. “The five cottages are arranged on a piece of land shaped like a long peninsula. Each cottage has a view of and access to the water. The cottages are spaced far enough apart so that it feels as if you are alone on the peninsula, but I can assure you that the other four cottages are occupied with folks you’ll want to get to know.”

“I look forward to it.”

Hope paused at a trail that veered off the main trail to the left. “This little footpath leads to the cottage occupied by one of my very best friends, Tegan Walker. She owns and operates a bar and grill just about half a mile down the road from the inn. The Rambling Rose is open for breakfast through dinner, and the bar remains open until nine on weeknights and eleven on Fridays and Saturdays.”

“Good to know.”

“The food is excellent, and it’s a good place to meet some of the locals.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Hope started walking again. “The next little footpath leads to the cottage occupied by Booker Maguire. Booker is currently dating Tegan. He’s a nice guy who works at the harbor. If you need to rent a boat for some reason, he’d be the one to see.”

“I’ll keep that in mind as well.”

“This next footpath leads to the only two-bedroom cottage on the property. It’s currently occupied by Josie Wellington and Jemma Hawthorn. Josie works at the bar and grill with Tegan, and Jemma is a computer geek, who works remotely for a company based in Seattle.” She paused at the next footpath. “This is our footpath, but if you continue on around the peninsula, you will come to the fifth cottage, which is occupied by a helicopter pilot named Cooper Fairchild. Coop owns his own bird, so he’s a good guy to know if you need access to immediate transportation.”

“Good to know,” I said, although I couldn’t imagine ever needing to rent a helicopter.

Hope turned onto the footpath that wound through what looked to be blackberry bushes. I’d noticed that a lot of different types of berries grew in the area. Blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries. The berries were past their peak by this point, but perhaps if I was still in the area next year, which was actually sort of doubtful, I could check out the possibility of harvesting some of the fruit.

“And this is the cottage I was speaking of,” Hope announced as a small cottage perched right on the water came into view.

“It’s lovely,” I gasped, wondering how I’d been so lucky to have inquired about this place at a time when it was empty. The cottage was small, only a single bedroom, small bath, kitchenette, and living area. But it did have a fireplace and huge windows overlooking a deck, which overlooked the sea. There was also a bonus room of sorts at the top of a narrow stairway off the kitchen. The room was small, more of an attic space that had been completely encircled with windows. Hope explained that her uncle had converted the attic space for use as an art studio. Being in the room felt a bit like being in a fishbowl, but the view was stunning.

“The landmass across the inlet,” I asked after stepping out onto the deck, “is that Piney Point?”

“It is.”

“But how can that be? I stopped on the bluff along the way to get a peek at the point, but I drove quite a way south after that.”

“You must have stopped on the northwest corner of Gooseberry Bay. We’re on the south side of the bay now. From the northwest point, you would have continued south toward the town, but then the road curved and hooked back toward the north once you reached the harbor. After we left the inn, we traveled further north, and this cottage is located on the very northern tip of the peninsula, which is surrounded by Gooseberry Bay on one side and Piney Inlet on the other.”

I looked across the bay and realized the land on the other side was the same piece of land I’d been standing on an hour ago. How odd that I hadn’t realized we’d changed direction so radically. I glanced across the inlet toward Piney Point and wondered for the hundredth time since I’d set out on this journey what exactly it was fate seemed to be leading me toward. The fact that I’d end up staying in a cottage overlooking the very house I was here to research was just too much of a coincidence, even for me.

“Do you know who owns the house on the point?” I asked.

“Two brothers: Adam and Archie Winchester. Adam is a great guy, but he travels a lot and is rarely around, but Archie and I are good friends.”

“Does anyone else live in the house?” I wondered.

“They employ a woman named Ruth. She cooks and cleans for the brothers. Is there any particular reason you’re so interested?”

“Sort of, but it’s a long story. I’ll fill you in at a later time.”

Hope nodded. “I need to get back, but if you want to come by the inn before six, you can sign the rental agreement and pay for the first month’s rent.”

I thanked Hope, promised I’d be by, and then headed toward my SUV. It took the dogs and me three trips to get all the stuff we’d brought with us from Georgia transferred from the car to the cottage. Once I’d stowed my suitcases in the bedroom, I opened the large slider and stepped out onto the deck. “Wow,” I said again, for what had to be the hundredth time since I’d been here. The view of the glassy water and hillside splashed with fall colors was almost more than I could take in after only a few moments.

Stepping back inside, I looked around once again. It appeared as if someone had cleaned the place after the man who’d lived here had died, but it also appeared that the cleaning had been a while ago. There was a layer of dust on every surface, so I supposed that if the dogs and I were really going to be comfortable here, I’d need to buy some supplies and give the place a good scrubbing. My plan was to spend as much time in this adorable little town as I needed to figure out why I’d been having vivid dreams about a house I’d never visited. It sounded to me like Hope was willing to enter into an open-ended rental agreement, which given my situation, suited me just fine.

Opening my overnight bag, I grabbed the journal I’d purchased to use more for keeping notes than for jotting down my thoughts. The little town of Gooseberry Bay wasn’t all that far away, but I preferred to get everything I’d need for a day or two in one trip so I could clean the cottage, get the kitchen set up, and ready my life for the intensive research I planned to do.

The first thing on my list was cleaning supplies. The refrigerator had been cleaned at one point and was plugged in and ready to go, so an assortment of food items would be of value as well. I wasn’t much of a cook and had been existing on sandwiches for a good part of my life, so I added bread, meat, cheese, and condiments to the list, along with a couple bottles of wine, a carton of milk for my coffee, coffee, and a coffeemaker since I didn’t see one on the counter, fruit, a few veggies, a box of cereal, and a few doggie treats for Kai and Kallie. I still had dog food from the last bag I’d bought, and I was fine on the vitamins and supplements the dogs took as well.

After opening and closing all the closets, I was able to determine that I’d need a broom and dustpan for the wooden floors, sponges, various forms of liquid cleaner, and gloves for the shelves, countertops, and bathroom, and maybe a few things such as basic plates, bowls, silverware, utensils, pots, and pans.

This would be a start, although I suspected additional visits to town would be in my future over the next few days. I was anxious to dig right into my research, but I knew that feeling settled and establishing a routine would be important to my overall health and ability to focus on the task before me.

I hated to leave the dogs alone in a place they weren’t used to, but they most likely wouldn’t be welcome at the general store, and I wouldn’t be gone long. Laying the blankets they preferred to sleep on over the newer-looking rug someone had left on the living room floor, I called them over, gave them a treat, and then promised I’d hurry back. Kai and Kallie were large dogs who needed a lot of sleep, so I suspected that once I drove away, they’d settle in for a nap that would most likely last until I returned.

My first stop was the inn where I’d promised to return to pay the first month’s rent and sign a rental agreement. Hope invited me in and offered me tea.

“This is lovely,” I said, taking in the pale yellow walls, cream-colored wainscoting, and pretty multi-panel windows looking out over the garden that had been planted on all sides of the large structure.

“I’ve worked hard to give the inn the feel of a cottage in summer.” She crossed the room and took a folder off the desktop. “Let’s head back to the sunroom so we can go through everything.”

I agreed, admiring the perfectly maintained antiques, huge picture windows, and artfully placed landscapes that Hope explained she’d painted herself. Unlike the scuffed floors in the cottage, the hardwood floors in the inn shone, making it appear that someone had just polished them that morning.

“How many rooms do you have?” I asked as we passed the hardwood staircase leading to the second floor.

“Fourteen if you include the rooms with the shared baths in the old wing.”

“You’ve created a very welcoming atmosphere. I imagine that you have guests that return time and time again.”

“I do,” she confirmed. “Mostly in the fall and during the Christmas season when the entire town goes all out to create a Christmas Village.”

Once we arrived in the sunroom, she offered me a seat on the sofa and then presented a standard rental agreement. She took the time to go over a few items, such as the open-ended nature of the agreement and the obligations she as the landlord and me as a tenant might expect. I gave her a check in the amount we’d agreed to and then asked about doing some light upgrades such as a fresh coat of paint to the interior of the cottage. I almost hated to ask since she was already doing me such a huge favor by allowing the dogs and me to stay there, but the warmth and coziness of the inn had inspired me. As it turned out, not only did she agree to the idea, but she was enthusiastic and even agreed to pay for the paint. When she offered me a discount on the rent, if I provided the labor, I knew I’d found not only a landlord but a friend as well.

As we sipped the tea she’d prepared, I asked if she had colors she preferred, which is when she brought out the design magazine she’d been poring over since inheriting the place.

“I really want the cottage to maintain the woodsy feel it has now. I don’t want to replace the hardwood on the walls and floor, but I do want to clean it up, and of course, the place could use a fresh coat of paint. Maybe blue or gray. Something peaceful and tranquil that complements rather than contrasting with the natural beauty of the cove where the cottage sits would be perfect.”

“I totally agree,” I said. “I can already imagine the place with a fresh coat of paint. I’ll stop by the hardware store for some paint samples while I’m in town picking up food and cleaning supplies.”

“A friend of mine owns Hank’s Hardware on Second Street directly across from the Rambling Rose, which sits on the bay,” Hope informed me. “Hank and I have talked about the sort of thing I have in mind. I’ll call him and let him know you plan to stop by. He can make sure you have everything you need, and he’ll just add it to my account, so there will be no need to worry about reimbursement and that sort of thing.”

“That sounds perfect. I might even stop at the bar and grill when I’m done and grab some takeout.”

“Tegan is the best cook in the state. If you like seafood, you should try her chowder. I promise you it will be the best you’ve ever had.”

“I love chowder. I’ll try it.” I looked around the room. “You mentioned that Tegan’s bar and grill was called the Rambling Rose, and I noticed the inn is named the Rosewood Inn. Was it intentional that you have similar names?”

“It was. Actually, Tegan started off here at the inn. She worked in the kitchen for a while, but she really wanted to open her own place, which was a dream I supported. When she finally got enough money together to go out on her own, she was so excited, but she also wanted to maintain the connection to the inn. It’s slow here in Gooseberry Bay during the winter, so instead of employing a chef, I just send my guests to Tegan’s place for breakfast and dinner. We have a voucher system set up. During the summer, I hire a chef, but Tegan supplies all the baked goods and desserts.”

“That actually makes a lot of sense.” I stood up. “I don’t want to leave the dogs for too long, and I have a couple of stops to make, so I should get going. Thank you again for renting the cottage to me. It’s going to make my stay so much more enjoyable than I ever anticipated.”

After I left the inn, I headed toward the general store. It was getting late, so I decided to tackle the hardware store the following day. For now, I just needed some food and cleaning supplies. It would take a few days to feel truly settled, but it would be worth the wait to start my research if I was able to have a place for the dogs and me to live that really felt like home, and so far, Gooseberry Bay felt more like home than anywhere I’d ever lived.

As I entered the downtown section of Gooseberry Bay, I could see that, like many of the other small towns connected by narrow roads, bridges, and ferries to each other and to the larger cities on the mainland of Washington, Gooseberry Bay was all decked out with orange lights, pumpkins, scarecrows, and everything Halloween. I felt a tug at my heartstrings as I stopped for a group of children dressed in colorful costumes who’d been waiting with their parents or another adult to cross the busy street between the boardwalk and the cute little mom and pop shops. I could still remember my father taking me trick-or-treating a time or two. I remembered the fun we’d had going door to door for candy, after which we headed back to the house, opened a can of chili, which we’d eaten while we’d watched a Halloween themed movie.

God, I missed him.

I tried to smile as a father dressed as a doctor waved at me in thanks as his family crossed in front of me on the way to the hot cider stand on the boardwalk. I waved back, but the pain from my loss was too great to enjoy the energy of the little town on this very special night. Once the group had made it safely to the opposite side of the road, I continued down the busy street. Hope had verified that I’d be able to get almost everything I’d need from the general store, so I found a parking space near the front door.

The general store featured housewares on one side and food on the other, so I decided to start with the pots and pans I’d need and then move on to the cleaning supplies, rounding out my trip with the food items I’d added to the list. Of course, by the time I’d placed a coffeemaker, a few inexpensive pots, pans, utensils, silverware, plates, and cups into my basket, it was nearly full. I managed to squeeze in the cleaning supplies, but that left no room for food. I supposed I could come back in the morning since I’d planned to pick up takeout from the bar and grill this evening. It would be nice to have a bottle of wine to sip with dinner, and I would need coffee for my new Keurig. Tucking the wine and a package of K-Cups under my arm, I made my way to the checkout counter.

“You must be Ainsley,” said the young woman behind the counter wearing a witch’s hat and pumpkin earrings when I began placing everything from the basket onto the counter.

“I am. How did you know that?”

The girl, who looked to be in her early twenties, grinned. “My mother, Patty, is good friends with Hope, who happened to mention to her that she’d rented one of the cottages on the peninsula to a visitor who was in town to do some research. Given the fact that you’ve managed to cram everything other than the kitchen sink into that one small basket, I can only conclude that you are new to the area and looking to outfit a rental. Gooseberry Bay is a small town. I put two and two together.”

“I’m impressed,” I said to the dark-haired beauty, setting the ceramic plates I’d selected next to the package of six light blue glasses. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage. You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“Cammy.” Her dark eyes flashed with enthusiasm. “Cammy Collins.”

“I’m happy to meet you, Cammy.”

“Did you find everything you need?” she asked as she neared the end of my order.

“Milk. For my coffee,” I remembered. “I forgot the milk. I’ll grab that, and that should do me until tomorrow when I’ll come better prepared to stock my kitchen.”

When I returned from grabbing my milk, Cammy handed me a flier. “Tonight is the big full moon festival. You should go.”

I glanced down at the flier. “Hope mentioned that tonight was the full moon.”

“And Halloween,” Cammy added with a huge grin on her face. “Do you have any idea how epic it is going to be to have the full moon fall on Halloween night?”

“Pretty epic, I would imagine,” I tried for as much enthusiasm as I could muster. “I’ve been traveling for days and am pretty exhausted, so I’m not sure I’m up for dancing under the full moon.”

Cammy began bagging my purchases. “I get it. Partying under the full moon isn’t for everyone, but if you can’t make the celebration tonight, at least come out for the picnic in the park tomorrow. Most of the families in town come, so it’s a good opportunity to meet people.”

“Sounds like fun. What time does it start?”

“The event goes all day, but the softball game is at three. You really have to come for that. I’m pitching this year, so I can guarantee you that my team will win.”

I had to say the girl’s enthusiasm was infectious. “I will definitely try to make it.”

Cammy totaled up my order and told me my amount. After passing her my credit card to pay my bill, I said my goodbyes and then headed out to the parking lot to transfer everything I’d purchased into my car. Just as I was getting ready to leave, a man in a huge black truck drove up, blocking my ability to back up without the risk of hitting him. What was it with men who drove big trucks and their irritating habit of parking like they owned the place? The guy hadn’t even turned off the engine or lowered the volume of the radio he was blasting loud enough to be heard in the next county. My instinct was to stomp back inside the general store and demand that the man move his testosterone enhancer, but I really didn’t want to cause a problem, so in the end, I decided to just wait until he grabbed whatever he’d shown up to grab, and continued on his way.

Deciding to make good use of my time, I texted my best friend, Keni, to let her know I’d arrived in Gooseberry Bay, and I was pretty sure I’d already located the house in the photo. Of course, I would need to get a closer look to know for sure, and I planned to do that as soon as I had the chance, but for now, my gut told me that I was finally nearing the end of my journey.

Keni texted back, excited by my news, and wanted to talk, but since she was in the middle of play rehearsal, she needed to call me later. I sent her hug and kisses emojis and then logged into my email.

There was a newsletter letting all subscribers know about the upcoming holiday festivities at the Inn at Holiday Bay. When I’d stayed in Holiday Bay, Maine before making my trip west, I’d gotten to know Abby Sullivan and Georgia Carter. Abby owned the inn Georgia ran. Both women had been super nice and had even helped me figure out that the house in the photo was more likely on the west coast than the east. I owed them quite a lot since there was no way I’d be as far along in my research as I was if I hadn’t met the women at the exact time in my life I’d needed the advice they’d provided.

It took a bit longer than I thought it should, but eventually, a tall man with blond hair wearing a Seattle Seahawks cap came out of the general store, opened the driver’s side of his truck, and slid inside. He glanced one last time toward the front of the building and then drove away, giving me the room I needed to do the same.

As I was pulling out of my parking space, I noticed Cammy turn the open sign to closed. It was only seven-thirty, and the general store was supposed to be open until eight, but I figured that perhaps she had plans and had made arrangements with her boss to close early. I pulled onto the highway and headed toward the Rambling Rose, never realizing how important my witnessing Cammy’s simple act of turning the sign early would turn out to be in the days ahead.

 

 

 

 

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Summerhouse Reunion

I’ve written the first of what I hope will be a series of three book mini series. The mini series is actually one story told over the course of three books which will publish in April, May, and June. The stories include a mystery, which runs through all three books, as well as two romances, featuring four friends each with their own life changes to deal with. I’ve included chapter one of book one here in this blog for anyone who’d like a sneak peek at what to expect.

Summerhouse Reunion – https://amzn.to/3btaroM 

Topsail Sundays – https://amzn.to/2ULHU79 

Campfire Secrets – https://amzn.to/39Tm07O 

 

Chapter 1 – Summerhouse Reunion

Sometimes life is about letting go. Letting go of the way things were supposed to have been. Letting go of unmet dreams and incomplete plans. Letting go of the anger that consumes you as you struggle to make sense of an unfinished life. I’d spent the last year denying the inevitable, negotiating for a different ending, screaming to the heavens that it wasn’t supposed to happen this way, and finally struggling to accept an ending that should never have been.


Letting go, I realized somewhere along the way, was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do.


“It’s a beautiful day.” A woman with white hair walked up beside me as the spray from the rough sea misted my face.


“Yes.” I turned and smiled. The woman looked to be a few years older than my sixty-eight-year-old mother; unlike my mother, however, who simply could not or would not understand the grief that haunted my every waking moment, this woman looked at me with compassion and understanding. “It’s a little rougher than I like my ferry rides, but beautiful all the same. My name is Kelly. Kelly Green. I’m afraid I can’t immediately place you, but I feel like we’ve met.”


“We have met, although it has been a long time since we’ve seen each other. About twenty years, to be more specific.”


My brows shot upward. “Dottie Pemberton?”


The woman smiled and offered her hand.


“Wow.” I reached out and hugged the woman. “I’m so sorry I didn’t recognize you. It’s just that…”


“It’s just that the fifty-two-year-old woman you remember looked a bit differently from the seventy-two-year-old woman standing before you today.”


“Yes.” I stepped back. “I mean, no. I mean, sure, your hair is different, and I guess we all have a few more laugh lines, but still…” I realized I was rambling, so I stopped and hugged the woman again. “How are you?”


“I’m as well as can be expected. I was sorry to hear about Kayla.”


My smile faded just a bit. The death of my twin sister and best friend still hurt almost more than I could bear. I’d tried to do as others seemed to want and hide my pain, but no matter how hard I tried, the simplest thing—a song, a scent, a memory—would remind me just how much I’d lost, and the grief would return in a wave that would envelop me and then cast me into a sea of darkness once again.


“I guess it must have been extra hard with her in a coma for so long and not knowing how things would work out in the end,” Dottie added after a moment.


She had no idea. In reality, Kayla had died a year ago, when a distracted driver had slammed into the car she was driving, but while everyone assured me that her mind was gone, her body had lived on, and as long as she clung to life, I’d clung to hope. Then, two months ago, her distraught husband decided to pull the plug and let her go peacefully, and I knew that my life would never be the same.


“How’ve you been holding up?” Dottie asked. She looked concerned, which I supposed was understandable because I hadn’t said a word since the moment she’d brought up Kayla’s name. “I do understand how difficult something like this can be. I suppose it is even possible to lose ourselves in our grief.”


I cringed as I remembered the random acts of craziness that had been brought on by my overwhelming grief. “It has been hard,” I finally said. “But I’m hanging in there. Some days are harder than others. Some days it doesn’t seem real. But I guess you might understand that. I heard your Harold passed away as well.”


“Yes. Three years ago. He was the love of my life, and I miss him every day.”


I squeezed her hand. “I’m so very sorry. Sometimes I think Kayla’s death would have been easier to deal with if she’d lived a good, long life before passing. Forty-two is much too young. She had so many things yet to do. She had a husband and two daughters who needed her, and she had me, who probably needed her most of all. But then I stop and ask myself if her passing would have been easier if she’d been seventy or eighty or a hundred, and I can’t help but be faced with the truth—when you lose half of your heart, it is going to hurt no matter how long you’ve had together on this earth.”


“It is true that losing someone you love is never easy. How are her husband and daughters holding up?”


I thought about the husband and daughters left behind. “It’s been hard, but the girls are in college now and live busy lives. The accident did occur a year ago, so I guess you could say they’ve had time to adjust. Mark was a mess in the beginning, but he seems to have moved on. He’s even dating.” I exhaled slowly. “Truth be told, I’m really the only one who hasn’t been able to let go. Everyone says I should. Everyone says the time for grieving has passed. But losing Kayla feels like losing half my soul.”


Dottie smiled in understanding but didn’t respond. She turned to watch a pair of dolphins who’d decided to race the ferry, or at least it seemed as if that was what they were doing. I took a moment to rein in my emotions. They still felt so raw, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that a huge cosmic mix-up had occurred, and Kayla wasn’t meant to die. Not only was she much too young, as I’d pointed out to whatever celestial body might be listening, but in dying, she’d broken a promise, and Kayla was the sort to take any promise she made quite seriously.


A small black bird landed on the railing, not far from where I was still standing next to Dottie. I closed my eyes as I let my mind transport me back in time. I felt the tension fade just a bit as the years fell away, and I conjured up a happier time. I thought about the two little girls who’d looked just the same. Two little girls who were not only sisters but best friends and soulmates as well. I remembered the promise made by those little girls, and I grieved for the hope that had been shattered when that promise was ultimately broken.


When Kayla and I were kids, I guess around six or seven, a friend of ours lost both her parents in an airplane accident. The tragedy was too great for either of us to understand, and I remember that we’d both had nightmares for weeks. The content of our dreams was somewhat different, but the subtext was much the same. We both dreamed of a dramatic event that would rip us from the life we loved, only to be thrust into an empty space, where we’d find ourselves lost and alone.


One night, long after we were supposed to be asleep, Kayla came into my room and climbed into my bed. She was shaking and crying, so I held her close while she shared the depths of the terror she’d been feeling since our friend had been orphaned. I’d been feeling it as well, but I wanted to comfort my sister, so I reminded her that no matter what happened, even if our parents died and we were left alone in the world, we’d always have each other. That reminder seemed to help both of us, so we’d made a pact that we’d always be there for each other, no matter what. We’d even promised to die on the same day, so neither of us would ever have to be alone. As absurd as that might sound, I think there might be a tiny part of me that was angry with Kayla for not upholding her part of the promise.


“So, what brings you to Shipwreck Island after all these years?” Dottie asked after a while.


I tucked a lock of long blond hair that had blown across my face behind my ear before answering. “Carrie Davidson invited me. I guess she had the idea of getting the whole gang together for a long-overdue reunion.”


“So Quinn and Nora are coming as well?”


I nodded. “They are. Carrie rented the summerhouse my family used to own for five weeks.”


“Five weeks. That’s quite the vacation.”


“I’m not sure I’ll stay for the entire period, but I did promise to show up and see how it went. Honestly, I may not have made the effort at all, but this year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the summer Peggy went missing, and Carrie wanted to do something to commemorate the role she played in our lives.” I turned slightly as a seagull landed on the railing beside me, chasing away the small black bird that had occupied the space. “It’s not that I don’t want to remember her; it’s more that I’m afraid my already raw emotions aren’t going to be able to endure yet another reminder of what has been lost.”


“I remember you were close.”


“The closest. She was like a sister to us, and we never really had the chance to say goodbye. Given the fact that she simply disappeared and no one ever knew what had happened, her family never did hold a funeral. I guess they never gave up hope that she’d find her way back to them.”


Dottie didn’t respond, but I could tell that I had her full attention.


“Carrie thought it would be nice to have a small ceremony,” I continued. “Nothing formal. I think it will be just the four of us.”


“I guess it’s been quite a while since the four of you have been on the island at the same time.”


I nodded. “I was here for Carrie and Carl’s fifteenth anniversary party almost five years ago, but Kayla was on a cruise with her husband, so she didn’t make it, and Quinn was overseas doing a story, so she didn’t make it either. Kayla and I came for our birthday when we turned thirty, but Nora was in Europe, and Quinn was in Africa, so I think the last time we were all on the island together was for Carl and Carrie’s wedding. Wow, I had no idea it had been almost twenty years since we’d all been together.” Where had the time gone? “Of course, now that Kayla is gone, I guess we can never all be together again.”


My heart tightened as I thought of the six little girls who lived different lives but reunited each and every year when our families returned to their summer homes. Carrie’s family lived on the island year round, but Quinn, Nora, Peggy, and Kayla and I lived elsewhere during the school year. I remembered how much I’d looked forward to summering on the island. Those summers were some of the best times of my life. 


“I ran into Carrie at the market a few months ago. She’s lost a lot of weight,” Dottie informed me, changing the subject, which was very much appreciated given my fragile emotional state. “I’d wondered if she might be ill, but her mother told me that Carl had filed for divorce, and Carrie wasn’t dealing with things all that well. I guess I don’t blame her. I can’t imagine having the man you loved and planned to spend your life with decide that he preferred to spend his life with someone else.”


“It has been difficult for her,” I agreed. “I’ve chatted with her on the phone on a regular basis since Carl left, and she just seems so lost. I suppose it’s even worse when Jessica is away at college, and poor Carrie is living in that big, old house all alone. I suggested to her that she should sell the house and buy something smaller, but I think there has been a part of her that’s held on to the hope that Carl would come to his senses and return one day. Of course, now that the divorce is finalized, I guess she doesn’t even have that to hang on to.”


“I don’t know Carl well, but based on what I do know, I think Carrie might be better off without him. I’d noticed him noticing other women for years.”


I hated to admit it, but I’d noticed the same thing almost since the day the two married. “I couldn’t agree more,” I voiced. “Carrie really is better off without Carl, although I would never say that to her. I think she is still at the point where she is totally focused on what she’s lost and is not of the mind to consider what she may have gained with Carl’s departure.”


Dottie shielded her eyes from the sun as the ferry turned toward the island. “I ran into Ryder just last week, and he said pretty much the same thing. Based on what I’ve heard from others on the island, he’s been her rock through this whole ordeal.”


I smiled at the memory of Carrie’s little brother. “Ryder always did have his sister’s back, even though he was younger. Carrie told me he’s the mayor now.”


“Yes, and a darn good one he is. Much better than Mayor Hadley, may he rest in peace.”


I crossed my arms on the railing and looked out to sea. “I’m having a hard time picturing Ryder as mayor. When we were kids, he was such a pest and always in trouble. In fact, I think he was voted most likely to end up in prison by his senior class.”


Dottie chuckled. “He does have a colorful past, and he still tools around town on that Harley of his, but in my opinion, he has done more to bring growth and prosperity to the island than any of his predecessors. The boy might wear his hair a bit too long, and I’m not overly fond of the leather jacket he seems so attached to, but Ryder has vision, and he’s a hard worker. He has a promising future ahead of him.”


“Has he kept his veterinary practice open?”


“He has. Being mayor in a small town like Hidden Harbor is more of an honorary title than a source of income, so all our mayors have had day jobs. Ryder is still very committed to the animals he cares for, but now he is committed to the people of the island as well.”


I shook my head as I tried to picture Ryder West all grown up. I hadn’t run into him during my last two visits to the island, but I had seen him briefly at Carl and Carrie’s wedding almost twenty years before. Even then, he’d showed up in a leather vest and leather pants rather than the tux Carrie had picked out for him. Of course, he’d only been seventeen at the time, which meant he must be thirty-seven by now. I had to admit that most people matured quite a bit in the years between seventeen and thirty-seven.


“I guess you heard that Sheriff Renshaw retired after serving the community for forty years,” Dottie continued.


“No, I hadn’t heard,” I said, raising a brow. “I guess I should have expected as much. He must be well into his sixties now.”


“Sixty-nine. He first started working in law enforcement when he was just twenty-five, and he retired two years ago. He was a good man and a good cop who has been missed, although Sam Stone has done an excellent job as well since he took over the role.”


“Sam Stone is the sheriff?” I had to admit I was even more surprised to hear that than I had been to hear that Ryder West was now the mayor. I seemed to remember that Sam was two years older than I was, so I supposed he must be around forty-four by now. As a teen and young adult, he was very much a wild child, but as I’d already told myself once in the past five minutes, people did tend to change. “I think the last time I saw him was at Carl and Carrie’s wedding as well. I remember that he’d been traveling with a rock and roll band and was getting ready to head out on tour.”


“He did leave the island for almost a decade, but then he came back about ten years ago and joined the force as a deputy. He is a hard worker who is well-liked and highly regarded on the island, so when Renshaw decided to retire, he recommended Sam as his replacement. In my opinion, the lad has done an excellent job filling the very big shoes Renshaw left when he decided to move to Oklahoma.”


“Sheriff Renshaw moved to Oklahoma?”


She nodded. “I guess he has kin there.”


I looped my arm through Dottie’s. “You know, when I boarded this ferry, I had very mixed emotions about returning to Shipwreck Island and Hidden Harbor, but after chatting with you about the people I left behind, I find that I am very much looking forward to becoming reacquainted with the men and women who were such a huge part of my life as a child.” I paused to remember the fun Kayla and I’d had every summer when we were children. The friends we’d made, the trips we’d taken, and the little skip we’d used to learn to sail. “Does Old Man Brewster still run the marina?”


Dottie chuckled. “The old geezer is still policing the fishing boats, the same as he always has.”

“To be honest, I’m surprised he is even still alive. I seem to remember him being about a hundred when I was a kid.”


“Brew has lived his life in the sun, so he looked weathered and aged even when he wasn’t all that old. I think he is about eighty-five now. But he is a young eighty-five. Not only does he have the energy of a man half his age, but he is just as ornery as he ever was.”


I grabbed onto the railing as the ferry made a sharp turn. I could see the island in the distance and suspected we’d be docking within the next twenty minutes. “One of the things I really love about Shipwreck Island is the fact that, while many leave within a few years of moving there, those who stay tend to stay for the duration.”


“That’s true. We do have our share of old-timers. Of course, with the bump in tourism that we’ve seen in the last decade, the number of young families moving to the island has grown significantly as well. I guess you must have noticed all the new housing when you were here five summers ago.”


“Actually, my trip five years ago was a quick one. I came over on the ferry on Friday afternoon, attended the anniversary party Saturday, and then went home on Sunday. I didn’t have the time or opportunity to really look around.”


“Well, you’ll need to take the time during this visit. I think you will be surprised at the changes to both sides of the island in the last ten years.”


A voice came over the loudspeaker announcing that the ferry was preparing to dock.


“It’s been really good catching up with you, but it sounds like we should head down to the car deck. Let’s do lunch while I’m on the island,” I suggested.


“I’d like that very much.”


“Do you have a cell? I can text you my number.”


Dottie nodded. “I do have a cell, but I left it in the glove box of my car. If you text me your number, I’ll text you back, and we can arrange something.”


She recited her number, and I added her to my contacts and texted my number to her right then and there. I knew from prior experience that if I didn’t do it now, I’d most likely forget all about it. We both decided to head down to the car deck, so we chatted as we climbed down the steep stairway to the lower level.


Once the ferry docked, I got in line and followed the cars onto Shipwreck Island. The island was surrounded by deep water that allowed even the largest ships to pull right up to the docks that had been built in key locations over the years. Prior to the island being inhabited, the area had seen more than its share of shipwrecks. Based on what I remembered of local history, there had been more than one cargo ship heading up the coast that had failed to see the landmass in the fog and plowed right into it. Of course, now every ship had sonar, GPS, and various other warning systems. Additionally, the island currently boasted six lighthouses, so it had been at least a century since the island had claimed any new victims.


There were two main towns on the island, which was conveniently located off the coast of Central California. Sea Haven was on the east side of the island and closest to the ferry terminal, while Hidden Harbor was on the west side and accessible only by sea or a narrow road that climbed up over the mountain at its center. Due to the small size of the island, the mountain acted as a natural barrier that tended to keep the two communities separate.


The drive up and over the mountain was gorgeous. The meadows were green and dotted with wildflowers, and the rivers ran full after the steady spring rain. When Kayla and I were children, our family lived in San Francisco, where our father worked as a business banker, and our mother ran a charitable foundation. Both our parents worked a lot of hours, but every June, as soon as school let out, our parents would close up the house in Pacific Heights, and we’d all pile into the van to make the trip to Shipwreck Island for the summer. Mom had a busy social life on the island, and Dad continued to work remotely, but the time we spent in the summerhouse as a family was priceless in my mind.


As I arrived at the summit of Sunset Mountain, I could see the town of Hidden Harbor tucked into the harbor for which it was named. Hidden Harbor was settled by rich families from the city, so although the area was remote, the town and the homes surrounding it reflected the opulent lifestyle of its upper-class residents. As I wound my way down the narrow mountain road, I found my anxiety level increasing with each passing mile.


I really was excited about seeing my friends, but the idea of staying in the same house where I’d spent summers with Kayla left me feeling agitated in a way I couldn’t quite explain. When Carrie had first invited me to the island, I assumed she was inviting me to stay with her in her large home, but after I accepted the invite, she’d sprung it on me that she needed to get away from the walls she felt were closing in on her and had rented the same beachside home my family used to own. While she admitted to feeling better about the choice of location for our reunion, the thought of spending time in the home where I’d once been so happy almost caused me to hyperventilate.


I would admit, however, that the summer home my father designed was pretty awesome. Set on one of the nicest beaches on the island, the views were amazing from every window. When I’d lived there as a child, the home featured four bedrooms and five baths, but the investor who’d purchased the house from my mother after my father’s death had converted the huge suite on the third floor into two, still large but smaller suites.


The second floor of the home featured three bedrooms, all with private balconies overlooking the sea, while the first floor housed a huge kitchen, formal dining and living areas, family and game rooms, two bathrooms, an office, and laundry facilities.


The town of Hidden Harbor, often referred to as the village, was elegant but compact. The village was located behind the harbor, which I supposed made sense because rich men and women who docked their yachts in the harbor for a few days could simply walk into the small commercial area that featured upscale shopping, elegant restaurants, and eclectic bars.


I slowed as I approached the outskirts of the town. I knew I’d need to watch for a fork in the road. The village was to the left, while the summerhouse of my youth was to the right. I wasn’t entirely certain when Carrie planned to arrive, but it was a beautiful, sunny day, so I supposed that if I got to the house first, I’d take a walk along the beach while I waited for her.


“It looks just the same,” I whispered to Kayla as I turned onto the coast road and headed north. “The white sand beach, the sapphire blue sea, the rolling waves, and the endless sky. All of it exactly as we remembered.”


My mother hated it when I talked to Kayla, insisting that I really did need to find a way to let her go, but I knew in my soul that I would never let go of this relationship with the sister who shared my heart.


“I’m excited to see the gang, but I’m also terrified that I won’t be able to handle the memories created by staying in the same house where we lived as children. God, I wish you were here. I wish you could see what I see and feel what I feel. I wish we could sit and chat late into the night the way we used to.”


I wiped a tear from my cheek and forcefully steered my thoughts toward something a bit less emotional. As I drove farther toward the north shore of the island, the empty space between the homes increased, giving the area a desolate feel. Many residents moving to the island wanted to be closer to town, which meant the farther from town you traveled, the more sparsely populated the beachfront property became. The house my family used to own was the last one on the coast road. I didn’t know if anyone had built on either side of it since I’d last visited, but when I was a child, the house stood alone along the northernmost point of the white sand beach.


After arriving at my destination, I stopped to consider the house. It had been a pale yellow when we’d lived there. Now it was sky blue. I liked it. The shutters had been painted a dark gray that contrasted nicely with the white trim, and there was a white screened-in porch. It looked as if someone had installed a new roof as well. The silver Mercedes in the drive informed me that Carrie had arrived. I wasn’t sure if I was happy or sad about that, but it was what it was, so I opened the door of my Porsche and stepped out into the drive.


“Kelly!” Carrie yelled as she ran out of the house and onto the drive. “I can’t believe you’re actually here.”


“I can’t believe it either.” I hugged her back.


She pulled away just a bit. “Let me look at you. It’s been so long, but you look just the same.”


I smiled. “I don’t know about that, but I will admit that I haven’t updated my look in ages.” I dug my fingernails into my hand to stop the tears pooling in the corners of my eyes. “You look fabulous and so different. I guess you went the opposite route and changed everything.”


She laughed. “Divorce will do that to you. After Carl left, I looked in the mirror and decided I wanted to change everything about myself. I lost thirty pounds, bleached my brown hair blond, cut it short, and even got blue contacts. Now, when I look in the mirror, I no longer see the frumpy, outdated woman Carl couldn’t wait to replace, but a new woman he most definitely would have looked twice at had we not already been married.”


I supposed I understood why Carrie might want an entirely new look after her husband of twenty years dumped her for a younger woman, but when I looked in the mirror, I saw not only my old, familiar image but Kayla as well. I knew that I would cling to that for as long as I could and wouldn’t change a single thing about my look, no matter how outdated my long hair and simple style became.


“Grab your stuff, and we can choose rooms,” Carrie said. “Personally, I think the two of us should settle into the two larger suites on the third floor. Initially, I felt greedy claiming one of the larger suites as my own, but then I remembered that I was the one who did all the planning for this event, so I deserved one of the larger suites.”


“I agree. You do deserve one of the larger suites.” I thought about my old bedroom on the second floor, and the Jack and Jill bathroom that connected my room to Kayla’s. Part of me wanted to stay in my old room, but another realized that taking a room on the newly remodeled third floor would be a lot easier on my emotions. “And I’ll take the second of the two third-floor suites, as you suggested. I always wished my bedroom, rather than my parents, was up there when I was a kid.”


After we stowed my luggage in the suite, we headed out onto the back deck that overlooked the sea. Carrie poured us each a glass of wine, which I welcomed after the emotional day I’d had to this point. It would be good to relax with old friends. Maybe by visiting the past, I could begin to heal in the present.


“I’ve been struggling with what to say or not say about Kayla,” Carrie said once we’d settled in with our wine. “I’m sure you must be hurting, and part of me feels like it might be easiest for you if everyone just avoids bringing up her name, but Kayla was a huge part of all our lives, and it feels unnatural not to bring her into the conversation.”


I reached over and grabbed Carrie’s hand. “It’s okay to talk about her. I can’t promise I won’t get teary when someone does, but she was part of the Summer Six in the past, and she will continue to be part of the Summer Six into the future.”


“Even if the Summer Six is now only four?” she asked about the six girls who had formed a club of sorts.


“Even if. We didn’t stop talking about Peggy even after she…” After she what? I asked myself. After she ran away, after she was kidnapped, after she died? The not knowing was the worst part.


“After she was no longer a part of our lives,” Carrie supplied. “And yes, you are correct, we didn’t stop talking about her. In fact, in the beginning, we talked about her more than we ever had before. It’s just that…”


“It’s just that you are being sensitive of my feelings,” I provided. “And I appreciate that. But Kayla is gone, and that’s something I need to learn to live with. Maybe if I talk about her enough, eventually, it won’t hurt quite so much to do so.” Even as I said that, I knew it wasn’t true, but one could hope. “When are Nora and Quinn getting here?”


“Quinn is flying in from Paris and wasn’t sure about all the connections, so she didn’t have an ETA, though she said she’d be getting into San Francisco tomorrow, or possibly even the following day. I guess she’ll make arrangements for the ferry over to the island once she arrives.”


“So she probably won’t be here until Monday at least.”


“That would be my guess. You know how busy she is. I’m just grateful she agreed to take any time off at all.”


Diana “Quinn” Quinby was a foreign correspondent for United Press International and traveled extensively. Although I hadn’t seen her in years, I did chat with her on the phone every couple of months, and it seemed she lived an interesting life.


“And Nora?”


“Nora had to postpone her arrival and won’t make it to the island until next week as well,” Carrie continued. “I’m guessing Thursday or even Friday.”


“I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?” Nora was married, with four grown children. She’d married her one true love, Matt Hargrove, right out of high school. Of all the couples I knew, they, it seemed, were the most perfectly suited.


“Shelby has been having some sort of issue with her college admissions packet, and Nora decided to make the trip out to Massachusetts to get it worked out in person. You know Nora; when it comes to those children of hers, a phone call won’t do.”


“I heard Shelby had been accepted to Harvard. That is really something. Nora must be over the moon with pride and happiness.”


Carrie gently nibbled on her lower lip in what seemed to be a nervous habit. “You would think that Nora would be ecstatic that not only has Shelby actually achieved her dream of going to Harvard but, now that she will be going off to college, Matt and Nora would finally have the house to themselves. But when I spoke to her, she didn’t seem happy. She seemed frantic and nervous and sort of sad.”


“Sad?”


“I get the empty nest thing,” Carrie shared. “I began to have all sorts of stress-related issues the moment Jessica started applying to colleges, and then, when she actually left the house where we’d raised her for the last time, I broke down and wept, despite the fact that I knew she’d be back for Christmas break. But I sensed something more than empty nest syndrome from Nora. Shelby is her youngest, and she has said goodbye to three other children. Still, I suppose the last one to leave home is the hardest.”


“I guess we can talk to her to see what’s on her mind when she gets here,” I suggested.


“Yes, we can. I can’t wait until we are all together again.”


“I’m excited to see everyone, but sitting here relaxing with you is nice, too,” I said. “I’d forgotten how blue the sea is along this stretch of beach.”


“It is something special,” she agreed. “I always did think this was the prettiest stretch of coastline on the island. I’ve even thought of buying one of the little cottages down the road after I sell my house.”


“You’re selling your house? That’s great. When I spoke to you last, you sounded like you weren’t ready to make the break.”


She nodded. “I used to love that house, but part of my new life, new me plan includes a new living space. I still want to be on the water, but I want something small that I can maintain with minimal effort. I haven’t definitely decided to move to this end of the island because there are advantages to being close to the village, but I have definitely decided to sell the house. Carl is having a fit about that, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t care. I got the house in the divorce settlement, so it is mine to do with as I please.”


I held up my glass in a toast. “Good for you. I love your new life, new you mantra. I think it is exactly the attitude you need to move past this and get on with whatever the future holds.”

Carrie clicked her glass with mine. “I was a total wreck for a long time, but I really do feel better with each day that passes. I actually feel excited to see what comes next for me.” Her phone buzzed. She looked at the caller ID. “It’s a text from Jessica, letting me know that she made it to France.”


“Jessica is in France?”


Carrie nodded. “I’d hoped she’d spend the summer here on the island, but she insisted that she’d made plans with a friend to tour Europe. I know it’s been hard on her since Carl and I split up, so I didn’t really blame her for not wanting to hang out in the war zone, but I sure do miss her. Now that Carl is no longer in my life, I feel sort of empty.”


“I’m sure that will get better with time.”


“I’m sure it will.” She smiled. “In fact, it already has. Since it is just the two of us tonight, should we head into the village to see if we can break some hearts?”


I laughed. “I don’t know about the breaking hearts part, but I’d love to have dinner in the village. Is Danello’s still there?”


“It is, and they still have the best Italian food you are going to get anywhere.”


“It’s been forever since I allowed myself that many carbs, but I’m game if you are.”


“Oh, I’m game.” Carrie stood up. “Just let me change, and we’ll go.”

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The Mystery Before Christmas

 

 

 

Book 2 in my new A Cat in the Attic series publishes on November 12th. I am really loving this series and hope you will as well. I’ve included a description and sample chapter below.

 

Description:

After a serious accident leaves Calliope Rose Collins unable to continue with the career that has owned her soul for most of her life, she returns to Foxtail Lake, Hollister House, Great Aunt Gracie, and childhood friend, Officer Cass Wylander, where she begins to rebuild her life from the ashes of what she once had.

In book 2 of The Cat in the Attic series – In addition to the time she spends at the animal shelter, Callie has a new sideline writing human interest stories for the regional newspaper. It is a job she loves and hopes to grow until she is asked to reveal the man behind the mask when Secret Santa comes to town and begins committing random acts of kindness.

Meanwhile, Cass has a new murder to solve, Gracie has gone crazy with the decorations, and Naomi’s friend Hancock comes to town. https://amzn.to/2CplW1l

 

Chapter 1

“He moves softly through the night, unseen and unheard, leaving gifts for those in need, while the residents of snowy Foxtail Lake slumber beneath blankets piled high to ward off the chill of a Rocky Mountain winter.” I turned and looked at the cat I’d been reading aloud to. “What do you think? Too flowery?”

“Meow.”

“Yeah, maybe I should back off the descriptors a bit. It’s just that I want to grab my readers right from the beginning. Maybe I should just say something like: ‘Secret Santa strikes again,’ and then talk about the gifts.” I paused to consider this. “Honestly, most of the gifts have been delivered by means other than late-night drop-offs, but the imagery of Santa lurking around in the middle of the night is a lot more appealing than the imagery created by a wheelchair being delivered by UPS.” I glanced out the window at the falling snow. The little room at the top of the house felt cozy and warm, and it was this feeling I wanted to bring to my readers. I glanced down at my laptop and began to simultaneously type and speak once again. “Not only has the mysterious gift giver, known only as Secret Santa, been busy doling out random acts of kindness to the town’s residents, but he also seems to understand exactly what each gift recipient needs. Billy Prescott received a new wheelchair after his mother backed over his old one; Connie Denton was gifted a down payment on the diner where she’d worked for over twenty years and hoped to buy from her boss when he retired and moved off the mountain; Gilda Frederickson found a gift card for a winter’s worth of snow shoveling services in her purse after word got out that she’d broken her hip; and Donnie Dingman walked out onto his drive to find a used four-wheel-drive vehicle so he could get to his doctor’s appointments even when it snowed. Some are calling this anonymous gift giver an angel come to earth during this holiest of seasons, while others are certain the late-night Samaritan actually is Santa Clause himself.” I looked at the cat. “Better?”

The cat jumped down off the desk where he’d been sitting and watching me work, and headed toward the attic window, which was cheerily draped with white twinkle lights. Apparently, my honorary editor was done listening to my drivel for the day. I supposed I didn’t blame him. It did seem like I was trying too hard to find the perfect words to describe the phenomenon that had gripped my small town for the past several weeks.

I got up from the desk and joined the cat on the window seat. It felt magical to sit in the window overlooking the frozen lake as fresh snow covered the winter landscape. Great-aunt Gracie had strung colorful lights on one of the fir trees in the yard, bringing the feel of the season to the frozen landscape. Combined with the white lights draped over every shrub outdoors, and the white lights I’d strung around the window and along the ceiling of the attic, it felt like I was working in a magical fairyland.

“Maybe instead of a whimsical piece filled with artful words, I should do more of a hard-hitting expose,” I suggested to the cat. “Everyone knows about the mystery person who has been gifting the citizens of Foxtail Lake with the exact gifts they need the most, but no one knows who he is. Maybe I, Calliope Rose Collins, should work to unmask the Good Samaritan. I know the people he has helped with his good deeds would welcome the chance to thank him. He really is changing lives. He deserves recognition for that.”

“Meow.” The cat began to purr loudly as he crawled onto my lap. I gently stroked his head as I considered the past two months and the changes I’d seen in my own life.

Two months ago, I’d come back to Foxtail Lake after a terrible accident had shattered my world. At the time, I was a broken woman simply looking for somewhere to lick my wounds, but in the two months I’d been here, not only had I finally begun to accept my new situation, but I’d made quite a few strides in my effort to reinvent my life as well. While my years as a concert pianist would always hold a special place in my heart, I loved volunteering at the Foxtail Lake Animal Shelter, and I adored my new career as a columnist for the local newspaper, a role I’d earned after I’d helped my childhood friend, Cass Wylander, solve not only a present-day murder but the twenty-year-old murder of my best friend, Stella Steinmetz, as well. After the case was solved, I wrote about my experience, the local newspaper picked it up, and as they say, the rest is history. The article was so well received that I’d been offered a weekly column to fill with whatever subject matter I chose.

Unfolding myself from the window, I crossed the room and sat back down at the old desk that I’d shoved into the center of the attic to use as my temporary office. The article on Secret Santa would be the fourth article I’d written for the newspaper. The first article on Stella’s murder had been published in mid-November, followed by an article about the missing dogs from the animal shelter where I volunteered, and then an investigative piece relating to the controversy surrounding the misappropriation of the funds which should have been earmarked to pay for the annual tree lighting which was due to run this week. The stories I wrote weren’t the hard-hitting exposes a real investigative reporter might pen, but I had helped Cass find Stella’s killer, I had found the missing dogs and the man who took them, and I had found the cleverly disguised missing money after it was announced the annual tree lighting would be canceled due to a lack of funds.

Of course, Cass had helped with Stella’s murder and the missing dogs. He would probably have been happy to help with the missing funds as well, but that story broke right about the same time Buford Norris turned up dead. Buford was an ornery sort who tended to drink too much, so after his body was found buried beneath the snow, most people just assumed he’d passed out and froze to death. But Cass wasn’t quite as sure as some of the other town folk were that Buford had passed out on his own. Investigating the man’s death as possible foul play wasn’t sitting well with the sheriff or the mayor, but Cass was a conscientious sort who wasn’t going to close a case based on a maybe.

“Is Paisley coming for a piano lesson today?” Great-aunt Gracie called up the stairs.

“She is,” I called back down the stairs of the large lakefront home I’d grown up in. “Anna has dance after school, so her mother can’t give Paisley a ride home. I was planning to pick her up.”

“I’m going to run to the market. I can pick her up if you’d like.”

“That’d be great.”

Paisley Holloway was our ten-year-old neighbor who was living with her grandmother after her mother passed just before Thanksgiving. Gracie and I were doing what we could to help out since the grandmother had her own health issues to deal with. Most days, Paisley got a ride to and from school with her friend, Anna, but on the days Anna’s mother was unable to provide a ride, Gracie or I picked her up from school. On the days we picked her up, we usually brought her here to the house, helped her with her homework, and generally did what we could to make things easier for everyone involved. It really was a terrible situation. One that no ten-year-old should have to live through. I’d lost my parents when I was young as well, so I knew better than most how important it was to have a safe harbor in the storm.

“Is Alastair up there with you?” Aunt Gracie called after a few minutes had passed.

I looked at the longhaired black cat who’d jumped back onto the desk next to me. “He is.”

“Okay, make sure he doesn’t get out. There is a big storm blowing in, and I wouldn’t want him to get trapped out in it.”

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” I called. I supposed I should have gotten up and headed downstairs when Gracie first called up since it would have cut down on all the yelling back and forth. “Just send Paisley up when you get back. Alastair and I are working on next week’s column.”

“Okay. If you see Tom, let him know that dinner will be at six tonight.”

Tom Walden was Gracie’s groundskeeper, although, in reality, he was so much more. He’d lived on the property with Gracie for more than forty years. Tom and Gracie were friends, good friends who shared their lives. Sometimes I wondered if they weren’t something more.

Once Gracie left, I returned my attention to the blank page in front of me. I had to admit the idea of Secret Santa intrigued me. Not only because this particular Santa had already spent tens of thousands of dollars gifting deserving citizens with items they needed but would be unable to buy on their own, but also because he’d been doing it for almost four weeks and so far no one had figured out who he was. There were theories, of course. A lot of them. Based on the monetary value of the gifts, it seemed pretty obvious the Secret Santa was someone of means. Though our town was small, and those who’d lived here for a lifetime tended not to be the sort to acquire a large amount of wealth, the town did tend to attract more than its share of retirees, many of whom were quite wealthy when they arrived. Since I was suddenly determined to identify Secret Santa in my column, I started a list of possible “suspects” after considering the monetary outlay.

The first name to come to mind was Carolyn Worthington. Carolyn was an heiress who’d lived in Boston until two years ago when her only child, a son in his forties, had died in an accident. Shattered to her core, she realized she needed a complete change, so she bought an estate on the east shore of the lake and then quickly made friends by volunteering in the community. Carolyn was quick to share her wealth and had given a lot of money away in the past, which made her both a good and a poor candidate for Secret Santa. If Carolyn was doing the good deeds, then why the sudden secrecy? Still, given her wealth and her altruistic nature, she was on the top of most of the suspect lists in town.

Then there was Haviland Hargrove, a lifelong Foxtail Lake resident whose grandfather had struck it rich during the gold rush of the nineteenth century. Haviland wasn’t as naturally altruistic as Carolyn, but he certainly had the means to buy everything that had been purchased and then some. He was a man in his early eighties, so perhaps he’d decided to spread his wealth around a bit before he passed on.

Dean and Martin Simpson were brothers who’d made a fortune in the software industry. The men lived together in a mansion set in the center of a gated estate. Neither had ever married nor had children and while they didn’t go out and socialize a lot, they were pleasant enough and had several good friends in the community, including my friend, Cass, who played poker with them twice a month. Cass didn’t think that Dean and Martin were our Secret Santas, but I wasn’t so sure about that.

There were a handful of other locals with the means to do what was being done. I supposed that once I developed my list, I’d just start interviewing folks. Someone must know something that would point me in the right direction. I supposed there would be those who would think I should leave well enough alone, and perhaps they would be right, but after stumbling across a really juicy mystery like this one, anyone who knew me knew I was prone to follow the clues to the end.

“Anyone home?” Tom called.

I got up and walked to the top of the stairs. “I’m here. Aunt Gracie went to the market. She said to tell you that dinner will be at six.”

“That should work. Did she happen to say what she wanted me to do with the tree ornaments she had me pick up while I was in Lakewood?”

I decided to head down the stairs rather than continuing this conversation as a yelling match. “She didn’t say. I’m surprised she wanted additional ornaments. We have boxes of them in the attic.”

“I guess these are special. Custom made. I’ll just leave them on the dining table for now.”

I glanced out the open door at the darkening sky, mindful of Gracie’s warning about not letting Alastair out. “I’m sure that is fine. Let me lock the cat in the den, and I’ll help you carry everything in.”

“I’d appreciate that. It seems your aunt has gone decorating crazy this year.”

I looked around the house, which was already decked out with garland, candles, wreaths, and bright red bows. She really had outdone herself. When I’d asked her about it, she’d mumbled something about wanting the place to be cheerful for Paisley, but truth be told, I think she was just happy to have others in the house to celebrate with this year.

“As far as you know, are we still getting the tree this week?” I asked Tom after we headed out into the frigid afternoon.

“As far as I know. If this storm dumps as much snow as it is calling for, then I’m afraid her plan to go into the forest to cut a tree might have to be altered. Walter has some nice ones in his lot. I took a look while I was there to pick up the branches Gracie wanted for the mantle.”

“I would think a tree from Walter’s lot would be just fine. If we can cut one, we will, but if not, we’ll work together to sell Gracie on the tree lot idea.” I picked up the first of five boxes in the back of Tom’s truck. “I’m really happy she is enjoying the holiday so much this year, but I’m afraid she is going to overdo. Not only has she gone crazy decorating, but she signed up to be the co-chair for the Christmas in the Mountains event as well.”

“Your aunt has a lot of energy. I’m sure she’ll be fine. We just need to be sure to help out as much as we can.”

“I guess.”

“Gracie wants you to have the perfect Christmas. Like the ones the two of you shared when you were younger. This is important to her.”

I glanced up at the sky filled with snow flurries as I started toward the house. “It’s important to me as well, and I do plan to help out as much as I can. Of course, researching Secret Santa is going to keep me busy. I think I’ve pretty much decided to focus on figuring out who Secret Santa is rather than the gifts he has delivered. You haven’t heard anything have you?”

Tom set his box on the table next to mine, and we both turned around to go for the next load.

“Everyone seems to have an opinion, but I haven’t heard that anyone has come up with any proof as to the identity of Secret Santa if that is what you are asking. The guys down at the lodge think it might be Fisher.”

I raised a brow. “Ford Fisher? Why do the guys think it’s him? As far as I know, the man isn’t rich.” Ford Fisher used to own one of the pubs in town before it sold, so I imagined he’d done okay in terms of saving for retirement, but I doubted he had tens of thousands of dollars to give away.

“I think Ford might have more stashed away than one might think. There is a lot of money in alcohol, and Ford has lived simply for much of his life. In my mind, he doesn’t have the right temperament to be Secret Santa, but he has been acting oddly lately, which is why I think the guys at the lodge suspect him.”

We headed back to the house with the second load of boxes. “Acting oddly, how?” I wondered.

“Secretive. Evasive. He hasn’t shown up at the lodge in weeks, and when some of the guys went by his place to see if he was okay, he told them he was fine but didn’t even invite them in. I’ve called him several times, even left messages, but he hasn’t called me back.”

“Sounds like he might be depressed. Do you know if he suffers from depression?” I set my box next to the others on the table.

“Not that I know of. Ford’s always been a real social sort. Other than those few times when he was too hungover to make it to the lodge, he’s pretty much been there every Wednesday and Friday since I’ve been going. Not that I go every week. Sometimes Gracie and I do something, but Ford is a real regular.”

“It sounds like you and your friends might be right to be worried about him. I’d continue to check on him if he doesn’t start coming around. Having said that, in my mind, his overall mood doesn’t seem to have a Secret Santa feel.”

Tom headed back out for the final box. I tagged along after him in spite of the fact there was just one box left to fetch.

“Yeah,” Tom agreed. “The idea of him being Secret Santa doesn’t sit quite right with me either. I hope he isn’t ill. He didn’t say he was feeling poorly, but that could explain his absences.”

“Wasn’t Ford friends with Buford?” I asked. “Maybe he is just missing the guy.”

“Maybe,” Tom agreed. “Ford and Buford went at it like two old junkyard dogs most of the time, but in the end, I guess you could say they were friends. Best friends even. I don’t suppose Cass has proven one way or another what happened to Buford.”

I shook my head. “On the one hand, Buford had been drinking on the night he died and could very well have wandered out into the blizzard, passed out, and froze to death. On the other hand, Buford had a bump on his head that looked as if it had been inflicted by someone hitting him with a heavy object.”

“Could he have hit his head when he passed out?” Tom asked.

“He could have, but the position his body was found in and the location of the bump doesn’t tend to support that theory. Of course, Buford could have bumped his head earlier in the day, and the fact that he had a knot the size of a jawbreaker doesn’t necessarily mean that injury was enough to cause him to fall to the ground in a state of unconsciousness. At this point, Cass is following the idea that Buford was hit on the head, blacked out, and then froze to death. I guess we’ll just have to wait to see where his investigation ends up. I’m sure if Buford simply passed out on account of all the alcohol he drank, that scenario will float to the surface at some point.” I looked up as the sound of a car approaching permeated the still air. “That must be Gracie. Paisley will be with her. Maybe we can talk about this some more over dinner.”

“That’d be fine. The truth as to what happened to Buford has been weighing on my mind. It’d be nice to know one way or the other.”

“Yes,” I agreed. It would be nice to know for certain what had caused a man who’d lived here for most of his life to simply perish in an early but not all that spectacular storm. I knew the mayor was pushing the idea that Buford’s death was nothing more than a terrible accident. I supposed I didn’t blame him. The town was just beginning to recover from the murder of twelve-year-old Tracy Porter. If it was determined that Buford had been murdered as well, it would most definitely bring back the fear and paranoia that had permeated the town after Tracy’s death. Cass wasn’t the sort to simply grasp onto the easy answer; he was the sort to want nothing short of the truth. Sometimes I wondered if his dogged commitment to following his instincts rather than the dictate of his boss was going to get him fired. I supposed that it was more important to Cass to be true to his convictions than it was to keep the job he seemed to do better than anyone else did. I supposed I really admired him for that. In fact, the more I got to know Deputy Cass Wylander, the more convinced I was that my childhood friend had grown into a man I could not only respect but grow to love if I was interested in that sort of thing, which I wasn’t.

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A Cat in the Attic Mystery

I’m superexcited about my new series that launches on September 3rd. The Cat in the Attic is a series about starting again when everything you’d spent a lifetime working for is suddenly ripped from your grasp. I’ve included the first chapter of book 1 – The Curse of Hollister House. I hope you enjoy reading this series as much as I am enjoying writing it.

 

 

Preorder today: https://amzn.to/2TU72I1 

How is one to start again after losing the one thing that speaks to your heart and fuels your passion?

After a serious accident leaves Calliope Rose Collins unable to continue with the career that has owned her soul for most of her life, she returns to Foxtail Lake, Hollister House, and Great Aunt Gracie, only to find, childhood friend, Officer Cass Wylander, knee deep in a murder mystery involving a twelve year old girl who died in the exact same manner as Callie’s best friend Stacy had died twenty years prior. Callie is certain the two deaths must be linked, but Cass has a suspect in custody and the Chief of Police wants the case closed in order to get the mayor off his back, so in spite of the fact that Callie is certain that they have the wrong man, it looks like the case will be closed. Callie knows that she owes it to both victims to find the truth, so she decides to look into things on her own, giving her not only a way to fill her days, but a means of renewing her passion.

Join Cass and Callie, along with Alastair the cat, as they seek out the hidden truths that will allow them to see what no one else seems to be willing too.

 

 

Chapter 1 

When I was a little girl, I would sit with my cat high up in the attic window overlooking the lake, dreaming the dreams only little girls can imagine. I’d plot adventures and weave enchanted tales as the seasons turned and the years unwound. It was a magical time, filled with possibilities that existed only in my mind. I’d imagined fairies in the forest, mermaids in the lake, and gnomes in the garden. As a child sitting in that window, nothing had seemed impossible, but as a broken adult sitting in the same window a quarter century later, I had to admit, if only to myself, that somewhere along the way, the magic I’d once believed in, had died along with my dreams.

“Callie, are you up there in the attic?” Great-Aunt Gracie called up the stairs.

“Yes, Aunt Gracie,” I called back.

“Is Alastair up there as well?”

I glanced at the black cat sitting in the window next to me. “He is.”

“I’m going to run to the market to pick up something for dinner. Is there something you’d prefer?”

I’d lost my appetite about the same time I’d lost my reason for living, but I supposed I did have to eat. “Anything is fine.”

“Okay, dear. I won’t be long.”

I pulled the cat into my lap as Gracie drove away. I ran my fingers through his long black fur as I turned slightly and looked around the room, filled with boxes and discarded furniture from generations of Hollisters. As the last Hollister daughter, I knew the house, lakefront property, private dock, and groundskeeper’s cabin would one day be mine, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted it.

Setting the cat on the floor, I unfolded myself from the window. I wrote my name—Calliope Rose Collins—in the dust covering one of the tables that had been stored by some previous resident. I remembered doing the same thing as a child living in this house after my parents died, and somehow, in that moment, I felt connected to that child and the dreams she’d once held in a way I hadn’t in a very long time. I’d done my best to go after those dreams. To bring my fantasies into reality. But along the way, I’d learned that what we plan for and what we are destined to have don’t always line up.

Alastair darted under a sheet that was draped across an old sofa. I supposed if you were a cat, the attic was filled with all sorts of magical places to explore. I could hear him swatting at something beneath the covering as I wandered around the large space, opening boxes and sifting through the contents inside. When I was a child, the boxes and their contents had seemed like treasures. The old clothes left by ancestors long gone had provided hours of entertainment as I tried on each piece and let my imagination take me where it might. The old top hat had become a magician’s hat, the costume jewelry a queen’s dowry, and the yellowed wedding dress a ball gown. The books stored in the boxes had provided hours of escape, the old art supplies a creative outlet, and the old piano, which some ancestor had schlepped all the way up to the attic before I was even born, a window to my soul.

I’d found a safe haven in this attic. Not only had I found solace during a time when little could comfort me but I’d found meaning and passion for the one thing that had pierced my grief and mattered. Pausing, I turned and looked around the room, searching for the piano. I remembered the first time I’d stumbled across the fascinating device that would deliver wonderful music with the touch of a finger. I’d been enchanted from the first keystroke and had begged Gracie to teach me to play. And she had. She’d taught me the notes and how to read music, but it was the hours spent alone with the melodies that existed only in my imagination that cemented a love affair that I was sure would last a lifetime. I looked down at my hands. Using my right forefinger, I traced the long scar that ran down my left arm from elbow to wrist. I tried to move fingers that, at times, refused to cooperate. Everyone said I’d been lucky. Everyone said that it could have been so much worse. Everyone said that having a life without music was better than having no life at all.

They were wrong.

I swallowed hard and forced myself to move on. While the attic was dusty, crowded, and unorganized, I did appreciate that everyone that had lived in the house had left something of themselves behind. Even I’d left boxes of old toys and outgrown clothing when I’d moved away. I wondered why Aunt Gracie hadn’t just taken all this junk to the secondhand store, but I supposed if she did, some future resident of the house would be robbed of the opportunity to play dress up and spin tales of salty pirates and kidnapped princesses the way I had.

Longing pierced my heart as I opened a box of photos. I picked up an old Polaroid of my parents on their wedding day. They looked so happy, so optimistic about the future. My mother and I looked a lot alike. Dark hair, dark eyes, a petite frame barely reaching five feet in height. My father, in contrast, had been tall and blond. His blue eyes sparkled with happiness as he stared back at the photographer. I knew I’d joined the couple and created a family just ten months after the photo had been taken, and four years after that, the people I most depended on would be forever ripped from my life.

Setting the box of photos aside, I lifted the sheet in search of the cat. “Alastair,” I called.

“Meow,” he responded from across the room.

I turned and tried to home in on his exact location. There were a lot of objects for something as small as a cat to hide behind, so I started across the attic in the general direction of the meow. I supposed if I didn’t find him by the time Gracie returned, I’d just leave the door ajar and he’d find his own way out. I maneuvered carefully through sheet-covered furniture and dust-covered boxes, jumping involuntarily as I bumped into the dressmaker’s mannequin. I remember how terrified I’d been of the lifelike shape when I’d first seen it. As a four-year-old, I’d been sure the form came to life when no one was looking. Gracie had been patient with me, taking her time to convince me that the stuffed dressmaker’s tool wasn’t real. It had taken several months, but eventually, I stopped screaming every time I saw the dang thing.

Aunt Gracie’d always had a lot of patience. After my parents died I felt so alone in the world, but Gracie had taken her time with me. She’d tried very hard to make me feel at home in my new surroundings, but I never really had until she’d introduced me to the attic and the magic that could be found in the little room beneath the rafters. Old houses, with their history, their lifelines, and their curses, fascinated me. Despite the tragedy that seemed to be connected to my own family home, I loved the idea of longevity, and places where multiple generations shared a single space.
Pulling a sheet away from the portrait of my great-great-grandmother, Edwina Birmingham, I thought about my parents’ death and considered the family curse. Apparently, Edwina had seduced Jordan Hollister away from her best friend, Hester Stinson and, in retaliation, Hester, a purported witch, had laid a curse on the happy couple that had stipulated that any Hollister daughter born to Jordan and Edwina, or any daughter born to their descendants, would suffer the tragic and early loss of their beloved. Neither Jordan nor Edwina were concerned about the curse, because the couple had only one child, a son they named Samuel. Samuel married a woman named Anastasia, who he brought to live at Hollister House. Anastasia gave birth to twin daughters, Gwendolyn and Gracie.

Gracie, the younger of the twins, continued to live in the house but never married or had children. Gwendolyn moved to Denver, where she married a man named Richard Hastings. Richard fell to his death on the couple’s one-year anniversary, so Gwendolyn, who was pregnant with twins at the time of her husband’s death, moved home, where she delivered Phoebe and Penelope. On the twins’ second birthday, Gwendolyn died of a broken heart, leaving Gracie to raise her nieces.

Penelope never married or had children. She loved to travel and never seemed to stay put until an unfortunate encounter with a French artist, a hot Ferrari, and an ill-advised joy ride, ended in her death on a narrow country road just outside Paris.

My mother, Phoebe, unlike her twin, was the sort to settle in and plant roots. She married a man named Roderick Collins. Ten months after marrying, they had a daughter, me, and four years after that, Roderick and Phoebe were killed in an automobile accident. I supposed there were those who would argue that the tragic yet unrelated deaths of three Hollister women over five generations didn’t constitute the results of a curse, and perhaps they’d be right. But I also knew that things like curses weren’t to be trifled with. I was now the only Hollister offspring alive and of childbearing age to carry on the curse, if one existed. Whether or not the curse was real didn’t really matter; even if it was, I knew it would end with me.

Picking up the cat, I headed for the door. The dust in the attic was beginning to irritate my sinuses, so perhaps a walk out by the lake would help. I set Alastair on the floor after closing the door behind me and headed down the stairs. Stepping out of the house onto the lawn that grew from the edge of the front porch down to the waterline, I stood and watched the sun as it dipped toward the horizon. I placed a foot onto the garden path that led down to the dock. Gracie loved her garden. She’d always said her prizewinning flowers filled the space in her soul left by the children she’d never had. The winters were harsh here in the Colorado Rockies, but every spring Gracie coaxed her garden back to life, and every winter she tucked it in beneath a scattering of hay to protect the delicate plants.

After walking down the path lined with flowers in warm fall colors, I stood at the water’s edge. I closed my eyes and listened as the frogs, with their long-drawn-out calls, competed with the buzz created by insects hovering over the crystal-clear water. I thought of the lush gardens and magical fairyland I’d played in as a child. I thought of the wraparound deck where I’d rocked in the swing with Gracie’s cat, Archie, as I’d shared with him my hopes and dreams. When I’d left, I hadn’t planned to return to Foxtail Lake. I’d believed the answers to my dreams lay elsewhere. I couldn’t wait to leave the sleepy small town behind, but I had to admit I’d been happy here once. Perhaps with enough time I’d find the peace and solace I longed for within the walls of the Hollister family home, the way I’d found peace and solace within those same walls after my parents’ death.

Taking a deep breath, I lifted my face to the setting sun and allowed the warm evening air to wrap me in a warm hug. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life now that the career I’d poured my entire being into had come abruptly to an end. I’d worked so hard to get where I’d been, only to have it stripped from my hands by a drunk driver who never should have been on the road in the first place. While Gracie’d taught me to understand the keys and play simple songs, it was the years of relentless focus and practice that had helped me to perfect my gift until I’d managed to get it just right. By the time I’d graduated high school, I’d wanted nothing more than to focus on my music. Sharing the music in my soul with auditoriums filled with people who loved my melodies almost as much as I might seem like a lofty goal, but it was a dream I’d worked hard for, and had realized by my twenty-fourth birthday. It hadn’t been an easy life, and the hours of practice were long, but oh how I’d loved traveling to interesting places and meeting new people. I’d had a good life, a meaningful and complete life. Until…

I tried once again to flex the fingers on my left hand. I could move them, but the movements were slow and the range of motion limited. My doctor said that with a lot of hard work, maybe I’d regain the full use of the hand, but I knew in my soul that I’d never again have a chance to play at Carnegie Hall.

I blew out a breath, closed my eyes, and tried to refocus my mind. I knew that obsessing over what had happened would get me nowhere. Life, I’d decided, was cruel and unfair, but what was done was done, and nothing I could do would bring the music back to me. I opened my eyes and looked around at the peaceful setting. Glancing toward the caretaker’s cabin, I thought about Mr. Walden. He’d lived on the property since before I’d come to live here as a child. Gracie hadn’t mentioned him since I’d come slumping home with my tail between my legs two days ago, which made me wonder if he still lived on the property, or even if he was still alive. This was the first time I’d ventured from the house, so I supposed he might be around and I just hadn’t noticed.

I was about to head back inside when I heard sirens in the distance. That sound always transported me back to the accident in which my parents had died but I’d escaped with only minor injuries. I’d been told that being strapped in a car seat in the back seat had made all the difference, but there had been many occasions in those first painful years when I wasn’t certain that surviving had been a good thing.

“Quite the ruckus going on across the lake.”

I turned and smiled. “Mr. Walden.” I hugged the grizzly old man whose skin was a sort of leathery brown after a lifetime in the sun.

“I guess now that you’re all grown up, you can call me Tom.”

“Okay. Tom. How are you? I was wondering if you still lived on the property.”

“I’m fine. Been a while.”

I nodded. “It has. I know I should have come back for a visit sooner, but you know how it is.” I turned back toward the lake. The flash of lights from emergency vehicles could be seen against the darkening sky. “I wonder what’s going on.”

“I heard on the scanner that a body was found near the campground.”

I narrowed my gaze. “I’m sorry to hear that. Do you know what happened?”

“There was talk of a bear. I guess we’ll see. The last time there was a bear attack it didn’t turn out to be a bear at all.”

“Like with Stella.”

“Exactly like with Stella,” Tom agreed.

Stella Steinmetz had been my best friend when I was in junior high. She’d disappeared while walking home from school one day. There were no clues to what had happened to her until her body was found weeks later in an unmarked grave. It appeared that she’d been attacked by a vicious animal, most likely a bear, but we all know that bears don’t bury their prey.

At the time of Stella’s disappearance I’d been devastated. Not only had she been my best friend, but the only reason she’d been walking alone, and probably the only reason she was attacked, was because we’d argued and I’d left school without waiting for her as I usually did. Yes, I was only twelve at the time, and I realize now, after years of counseling, that twelve-year-old friends tend to have spats, and I’d almost let the therapist convince me that her death wasn’t my fault, but there hadn’t been a day since Stella’s body was found that I hadn’t wished I’d done things differently.

They never did figure out who’d attacked her or why her face had been shredded the way it had been. They never figured out who had robbed a young girl on the cusp of womanhood of the life she’d been meant to have.

I turned when I heard a car in the drive. It was Gracie. I waved to her but didn’t make an effort to close the distance between us. I didn’t suppose I’d be able to learn any more than I already knew by standing there watching the lights in the distance, but somehow, I found myself unable to walk away.

“Looks like another girl has died,” Tom said to Gracie when she walked up and joined us.

“I heard. They think it is Tracy Porter.”

I glanced at Gracie. “Tracy Porter?”

“Young girl who went missing a month or so ago,” Tom answered. “She was walking home alone, same as Stella and, like Stella, she never made it to her destination.”

“It’s been twenty years since Stella died. Surely we can’t be looking at the same killer,” Gracie pointed out.

“Is Deputy Quinby still in charge of the local sheriff’s office?” I asked. To be honest, when I’d lived here, I found the man to be very nice but pretty useless when it came to tracking down individuals behind any serious crimes.

“He retired,” Gracie answered. “Cass Wylander is in charge of the local office now.”

I raised a brow. “Really? I hadn’t heard.” Cass and I had been kindred spirits when we were kids. We both had active imaginations and a willingness to seek out adventures. Next to Stella, Cass was probably the best friend I’d had when I’d lived here. He’d played the guitar and I’d played the piano and keyboard. We’d talked about forming a rock band, but that was before I realized it was a different type of music that was surging through my soul.

“I thought the two of you kept in touch,” Gracie said.

“We did,” I answered. “At first. But you know how it is. I left Foxtail Lake fourteen years ago. I guess as time went by, we drifted apart.”

“Cass is a good cop,” Tom said. “If anyone can figure out who killed Tracy, he can.”

“You should look him up when you have a chance,” Gracie suggested.

“I will.”

Gracie looked at Tom. “I’m making spaghetti. Do you want to come by for a bite?”

“I’d like that very much. I’ll need to clean up a bit first.”

“That’s fine. I’ll see you in an hour.”

I watched as Gracie made her way back to the house while Tom headed toward his own cabin. The two had lived on this property together for close to forty years. I knew they were friends, but at times I’d wondered if they might not be more. I knew that Gracie believed strongly in the Hollister curse and had vowed never to marry, but vowing not to marry didn’t mean she hadn’t ever fallen in love.

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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.”

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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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