No Going Back Excerpt

Chapter One

 

     "You can't be serious!"

     Morgan Gaddison peered over the top of his reading glasses. "As your mother's attorney, I can assure you I'm quite serious. If there's one thing I never kid about, it's a Last Will and Testament. Your mother left you the homestead in Riverside, West Virginia."

     Kellen Brand glanced at her brother seated next to her. He looked as shocked as she felt. "We thought she sold the old place when she married John Wiggins and took us to live in Virginia," Joey said.

     She nodded her agreement.

     Gaddison shook his head. "Your mother told me she couldn't bear to sell the place, so she's been renting it since you moved to Virginia. She went back periodically to check on things."

     "I can't believe it," Kellen said. "We had no idea."

     "Caroline saved the rental money and used it for living expenses so she could save every dime the two of you have been sending her every month."

     Kellen's jaw dropped. "She told you about that?"

     "Your mother was quite proud of your concern for her welfare. In fact, your monthly stipends make up most of the money in her estate."

     Kellen exchanged a shocked glance with her brother.

     Gaddison cleared his throat. "Caroline was a remarkable woman. I'm proud to have known her."

     "You don't have to tell us how remarkable our mother was," Joey said. "We lived it. She kept us alive with little or nothing, more than once."

     Tears burned at the backs of Kellen's eyelids. With Joey's sandy hair and the spray of faint freckles across his nose and cheeks, he looked like the little boy she tried so hard to protect in her youth.

     "According to Caroline, her farm shared a dirt road with a church, an old grist mill, and one other homestead. Your property is presently vacant," Gaddison continued. "It hasn't been rented in over a year. I checked."

     "I wonder what kind of shape it's in," Kellen said.

     "Evidently, property values have increased, and a developer is interested in your farm. I've already spoken with him on the phone -- a Mr. Corazon. He's interested in building a whitewater rafting resort on the river. The place needs to be cleaned up a bit, but one or both of you will have to go to Riverside and meet with Corazon. I can set that up, of course." He pulled a page from the folder in front of him. "He was a little disappointed to find your property so close to the old church and its cemetery, but he still wishes to pursue the sale."

     Joey chuckled. "Most folks think cemeteries are creepy -- not Kell and me. We used that cemetery as our own personal playground; we built forts and played hide and seek."

     She smiled at Joey's memories. "Is that all, Mr. Gaddison?"

     "Not quite. There's a letter that I'm to read to you -- from your mother." He held up the page he had taken from the folder. "She wanted to be sure you were together for the reading and said I was to answer any questions you might have. If you'd rather read it in private..."

     "No." She held up a hand. "If Mom wanted you to read it, go ahead."

     Joey nodded.

     Gaddison cleared his throat:

 

My darling children,

 

     By the time Morgan reads this to you, I will be home in heaven and comforted by a peace which surpasses your human understanding. You both know me well enough to know I'm looking forward to the trip. I worried about leaving the two of you behind, so I asked God for a guardian angel to watch over you until you found the right path for your life. Don't worry. I've left you in good hands.

 

     The homestead is yours to share. Keep it or sell it. The choice is yours. The most important thing I've left you is the guardian angel.

 

     I will love you always,

 

     Mother

 

     Gaddison glanced up with a smile. "Your mother was a little...how should I say..."

     "Eccentric?" Joey offered, smiling back.

     "Yes," Gaddison agreed, "she was definitely eccentric. I have to say I was a bit surprised when she laid out her intentions for this will."

     "I'll bet you were," Kellen said. "I'll bet no one ever had you put a guardian angel in a will before."

     "No, I have to say this was a first."

     "I'm still shocked she kept the farm after all these years, and that she hired an attorney to put a will together."

     "She didn't. Her friend did it for her. I stopped and had breakfast every morning at the diner where your mother worked. Did it for years." He shrugged. "In time, we became good friends."

     "So that's how--"

     Gaddison nodded. "Yes, that's how she ended up with an attorney and a formal will. I insisted on it. So, what will you two do?"

     Kellen sighed and faced her brother.

     "I have to get back to the Globe," Joey said. "I told them I'd only be gone a week. You're the best financial consultant Providence ever had. They'd let you work from home forever. Me? I just hope my job's still there when I get back. "

     She nibbled on her lower lip. "The bank did tell me to take all the time I need, and now it looks like I need to go to Riverside. They can get me by cell phone or email if they need something. A few more days won't kill me, I guess."

     "You don't need me to put the old farm on the market," Joey added.

     Gaddison's head jerked up. "You're going to sell it?"

     "Absolutely," the two said in unison.

     "Just like that?"

     They both nodded.

     Gaddison fumbled with the letter. "What about this?"

     "What about it?" Kellen asked.

     He cleared his throat. "Well...the angel I guess."

     She huffed out a sharp sigh. "Come on, Mr. Gaddison. You don't really believe Mother could leave us a guardian angel, do you?"

     The poor man looked uncomfortable and twice started to say something but stopped both times.

     "Relax. You read us the letter and the will. We understand our mother's intentions. You fulfilled any obligation you had."

     She and Joey stood up and exchanged handshakes with Gaddison. "Thank you for looking after our mother," she said.

     "Well, watch out for dust devils." Gaddison smiled at their puzzled stares. "Something Caroline once told me. Angels come in whirlwinds. The Bible says so." Kellen raised her eyebrows, and his expression turned sheepish. "All right, I admit I never checked. I figured Caroline read the Bible enough times she knew what she was talking about."

     Joey winked as they made their exit. "Eccentric, Mr. Gaddison. Remember?"

     "Kellen, wait."

     She paused at the door.

     "Since you're going to Riverside, I should tell you that Corazon is also interested in the ranch to the north of your farm and the old mill property to the south. He mentioned the rancher playing hardball and refusing to sell. You be careful. Your mother would never forgive me if I let anything happen to you."

     She gave him an indulgent smile. "Don't worry, Mr. Gaddison. Nothing is going to happen to me. Nothing ever happens in Riverside."

 

*****

 

     Kellen crossed the state line near Blacksburg and caught brief glimpses of the Tanawoc River from Highway 60, as she drew near her hometown. When she cleared the last curve high on the bluff, she could see the entire eight blocks of Riverside stretched before her with the river curling alongside. She slowed her car almost to a crawl. Trees lined up like sentinels along the riverbank. Water glistened through the breaks in between, its surface broken up where rocks created riffles. She buzzed down her window and drew in a deep breath. The smell of the river brought memories of playing with Joey in those same riffles, collecting crawfish and dragonfly larvae.

     A few yards ahead, a narrow road veered off to the right and snaked down toward the river. On a whim, Kellen drove down the twisting lane. The river was the only place in Riverside she remembered being happy, and she needed to get closer, to touch the water if she could.

     Slowing at the tree line to get her bearings, she stopped to pull over where the bank jutted out over the water. She climbed out of the car and scanned the shoreline. To her right, the slope grew flatter and provided easy access to the water. The river maintained a good current, and soggy leaves and debris sped past in the flow. Grassy hills rolled back from the opposite riverbank, and she wondered if the Clandestine Mining Company still owned all that property.

     A familiar aroma wafted up from the river, a combination of humus, plant material, microscopic plankton, and a touch of fish. Unable to stop it, a smile slowly stretched across her face. She untied her sneakers, rolled up her jeans, and eased into the icy water. She immediately gasped, and felt her smile deepen to a grin. Kellen remained in the soothing current for a long time, taking in her surroundings as she watched brim dart in and out of the submerged rocks to hunt for their plankton lunch.

     A horse whickered behind her, then the telltale creak of a saddle -- too close for comfort. She froze. The hair on the back of her neck prickled as though lightning were about to strike. Ankle deep in the water, she couldn't make a decent sprint for the car, and she regretted her impulse to visit this deserted stretch of riverbank.

     She eased around and saw the towering silhouette of a powerfully built man astride a huge black stallion, the rider's face shadowed beneath a wide-brimmed Stetson. The cowboy made an impressive, and at this moment intimidating, sight -- a throwback from the frontier days of the wild wild West.

     The horse whickered again and sidestepped away from the edge of the embankment, forcing the cowboy to twist around to keep her in sight. She could feel his dark eyes studying every inch of her. The intensity in his gaze raised goosebumps on her arms and sent a tiny shiver vibrating up her neck. Trapped here along the edge of the river, she felt vulnerable yet strangely unafraid. Would he come any closer?

     A horn blared up on the highway, and she jumped with a yelp. The horse reared up at the sound of her cry, and Kellen caught a brief look at the cowboy's dark eyes, eyes that could look right through a girl. She closed her own eyes to force herself to breathe, and when she opened them, the rider was gone. Had she imagined him? Another mild shiver vibrated her spine as though in answer to her question, and she knew she hadn't imagined the fearsome rider.

     She climbed back up the embankment and scanned the twisting river lane in both directions, but the cowboy had vanished. She felt an inexplicable disappointment and immediately chided herself. She had no business being on this deserted stretch of riverbank with a complete stranger. Better she should climb back in her car and drive through Riverside. Eight blocks wouldn't take long to see.

 

*****

 

     The same dozen businesses she remembered from her youth stretched across Riverside's eight blocks with two-story Victorian houses sandwiched between, and all begging for a fresh coat of paint. She shook her head in amazement. The tiny town hadn't grown or changed in almost twenty years. She was relieved to see McRae's still occupied the center corner in town. The combination general store and restaurant provided a rest stop for visitors and a place for residents to catch up on local gossip. At least it had when her family left for Virginia.

     Though she still had a half tank of gas, she pulled into Ray's Texaco at the far end of town. The gas station had a small office and two open service bays, a white sedan up on a hoist in the far one. A dented red pickup truck with rust spots on the back fender sat parked at the side of the building, and a rotund man in a greasy tee-shirt sauntered from the garage-half of the station.

     "Fill 'er up?" he called, through her open window.

     A Full Service sign sat propped atop the closest of the two gas pumps. "Yeah, sure."

     "Nice Buick," he said, as he unscrewed her gas cap and reached for the pump.

     "It's a rental." She opened her door and stepped out to the smell of gasoline and grease.

     "Just passing through?"

     The man seemed intent on making conversation, and since she had no intention of using the restroom at this dingy station, she was trapped. "No, I--"

     No way would she share her plans with a perfect stranger.

     "Name's Ray," he said and broke into a wide smile. His teeth were straight and white, his smile warm and friendly.

     She couldn't help grinning back. "I'm Kellen Brand, and I'm here to... " She hesitated again. "... to check on my mother's place down by the mill."

     The man looked astonished. "You mean the old Brand place out on Laden Mill Road?" He nodded his head toward the west end of town. "By the old church?"

     "Yes. I haven't been here in almost twenty years."

     The warm smile flashed again. "Well, I'll be a son of a gun. Folks around here still talk about your mom. Caroline, wasn't it? Guess you got her red hair and green eyes." His grin turned sheepish. "I mean that's what folks said and all."

     Kellen almost gaped and caught herself. She didn't know what surprised her more. The fact that folks in Riverside talked about her mother or that this man remembered what they had said.

     "We got somethin' in common. I'm kinda' new here myself. Just bought this gas station a while back. Always wanted one and it's the only one in all of West Virginia I could afford." His bright smile flashed again.

     She gave Ray a polite nod and gazed off toward the river. She didn't want to know anyone in Riverside and certainly didn't want to have anything in common with Texaco Ray. She intended to get in and get out of here fast.

     He seemed to realize the conversation was over and made no more attempts.

     She paid for her gas and headed west out of town. Her GPS led her to Laden Mill Road a half mile up the highway, and her heart beat faster as the dilapidated road sign came into view. The afternoon sun had turned the clay road to a brilliant pale orange, and she could feel each heartbeat in her throat. Would she recognize the old homestead? She was eleven when her mother remarried and moved them in with her stepfather, and Kellen had never returned to Riverside. Painful memories had kept her away, memories of her father dying and memories of that one horrible winter.

     She reached the turnoff to the farm guarded by a single fencepost with a crossbar supporting a mailbox. Beneath the mailbox hung a warped wooden sign with Angel Wind in faded white letters. Kellen wondered for one brief moment if her mother really could bequeath her a guardian angel for protection, and a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she turned down the long, dirt drive.

     Her first glimpse of the cabin brought a full-out smile. Painted recently, the clapboard sides shone bright white, and she recalled her phone conversation with Gaddison the night before. "Your mother left instructions for me to take care of a couple things around the place in preparation for the sale or occupancy," he'd said.

     She pulled to a stop near the cabin and got out. The old barn sat back about fifty yards closer to the river; the wood panels, once a dark red, now had a mahogany hue. Harsh West Virginia winters had faded and warped the panels, leaving a multitude of gaps between boards. A sudden gust of wind brought the damp smell of humus wafting up from the river, and she promised herself an excursion back to the water as soon as she got settled in.

     Turning to face the cabin, she felt memories flood in like ice melt to the river. She saw a little girl holding a basket of seeds while her mother planted a vegetable garden on the side of the house. She saw a first grader washing the lower glass panes on the front windows while her mother cleaned the higher ones. She saw an eight-year-old patiently teaching her younger brother how to catch a baseball -- her father's baseball.

     Ugly images suddenly burst from her vault of memories: school children pointing and laughing at her tattered and patched dress; running from the nasty Reilly boys as they chucked dirt clods at her and Joey on their way home from school; Christmas with no tree and no lights, and worse still, no presents; and always, always, the ever-present hunger.

     The afternoon sun disappeared behind a bank of clouds, and a dust devil swirled in the patchwork of grass and dirt near the front steps. Her breath caught in her throat. Stunned, she followed the path of the whirling wind and remembered Gaddison's comment about angels coming in whirlwinds. Leaves and grass blades spun upward in a tight vortex that carried the debris as far as the barn before releasing the particles and fading into oblivion. At that very moment, the sun broke free of the smothering clouds and brightened the front of the cabin, inviting her approach. She reached the first step and a swath of peace hovered about her.

     "I made it, Momma," she declared aloud and felt her mother's spirit close by. "And I'm successful too. I'm just as good as the rest of them."

     She dug around in her purse for the key Gaddison had given her and pushed the front door open. The curtains were pulled back from the two front windows, and the angle of the afternoon sun sent brilliant beams of light across the hardwood floor. Sheets covered the couch and two chairs that occupied the left half of the room; an oak hutch with a dining table occupied the right half with a thick coating of dust for cover. Beyond was a doorway that led to the kitchen. She set her purse and coat down and tried to imagine the cabin when she'd lived there as a child. The appliances looked newer, but the cabinets were the beautiful oak cabinets her father had built so long ago. She traced her index finger down one of the cabinet doors she saw so often in her dreams, dreams of cabinet doors with empty shelves behind them and gut-twisting hunger entwined with a fear that tomorrow would bring no food and no relief from the hunger pains.

     She shook off the morbid memories and flipped up the light switch. Nothing. She checked the other lights in the house -- all were out. She found the fuse box in the small pantry near the back door, but all the switches sat in the proper alignment. Outside, she found an empty meter housing on the clapboard siding and a red Tanawoc Utility Company tag tied to the conduit beneath. She groaned. Gaddison had failed to pay the electrical bill.

     She strode back into the cabin and grabbed her purse, intent on reaching the utility office before it closed for the night. The red tag listed an address in Benton, the county seat just north of Riverside. Car keys in hand, she made it to the porch and stopped. Today was Sunday. The utility office was closed. Worse still, the cabinets and drawers had offered up no flashlights, candles, or oil lamps. Her only course of action now was a return trip to town and McRae's and hope they weren't closed too. With a resigned sigh, she headed down the front steps toward her car.

     Bang!

     The old wooden barn door swung out and slammed hard against the outer wall, startling her into a gasp. The barn door had been closed when she pulled in. Before she could catch her breath, another breeze whirled in off the river and tossed the door toward its frame only to bounce it back open to slam the outer wall a second time. Willing her heart rate to slow, she trotted over to pull the door shut. As she reached for the latch, a loud thunk reverberated against the far end of the barn, followed a split-second later by an echoing pop from the distant hill. She instinctively ducked.

     A gunshot.

     Afraid to move, she stayed down for several minutes, her arms protectively covering her head. Her breath wheezed in and out in a staccatoed pant. When no second shot rang out, she twisted around to search for a shooter. Her property appeared deserted. The pasture across the road disappeared into a stand of trees at the crest of the hill, and she squinted to see if the trees harbored a shooter. Her heart sledgehammered against her sternum; the individual beats echoed in her ears. She felt vulnerable and exposed squatting next to the barn. She gazed swiftly in every direction for any sign of movement.

     Nothing.

     No one.

     Maybe she was wrong, and the sound hadn't been a gunshot.

     She waited several more minutes. Her heart rate eased to a canter.

     She rose to her feet and inched her way down the side of the barn, careful to keep an eye on the distant pasture. Splinters of wood protruded from the edges of a very visible and very fresh bullet hole decorating a wooden plank at her exact head height not twenty feet from the barn door. Her heart jumped a full beat, and she whipped around to scan the empty hills one more time.

     Nothing.

     She sucked in a ragged breath as her fingers touched the jagged edges of the bullet hole. Why would someone shoot at her? No one knew she was here, except Ray back at the Texaco. She pressed her eye up to the bullet hole to peer into the darkened barn, then spun around for one more reconnoiter of the far pasture.

     Still no movement. Nothing out of the ordinary.

     This seemed crazy. People get mugged in New York City; people don't get mugged in the tiny Appalachian town of Riverside. She couldn't even go to the police. Riverside had only the County Sheriff up in Benton.

     No matter -- she would head to town and report the gunshot to somebody. She quickly latched the barn door, climbed in her car, and smacked down the door locks. Someone at McRae's would know what to do.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

     A wave of relief rolled over Kellen when she spied McRae's front door standing open. The inner screen door still sagged in places, and other than a fresh coat of paint, the old store hadn't changed since her trips here as a child hoping for a piece of penny candy when her mother shopped for supplies. The building could have been transported from any frontier town in the 1800s, right down to the wide plank steps she climbed to reach the full-length porch and its half-dozen unoccupied rocking chairs.

     She paused on the top step and could suddenly see her mother's despair as she left the store with little more than flour, sugar, bread, and rice -- and always because some of her clients hadn't paid their cleaning bills on time. She scrunched her eyes shut to flush away the image and fumbled her car keys into a purse pocket. The screen door swung open without warning and smacked her shoulder hard enough to shove her back two steps.

     "Oh, I'm sorry," a deep voice said, and a well-muscled arm reached around the screen to steady her. "Are you all right?"

     "I'm fine," she muttered and yanked her purse strap back up on her shoulder.

     The owner of the arm stepped past the screen door. "Are you sure? I apologize again. I was looking back into the store when I pushed the screen. I should be more careful."

     Oh good Lord, it's him! The cowboy.

     She couldn't help staring and thankfully managed to keep her mouth from gaping. Whoa Nellie -- the guy was handsome with striking features and a size even more intimidating up close. He wore his rugged look well, a strong jaw, dark hair a little long and curled at his neck, begging for a girl's fingertips -- and hers tingled against her purse strap. She'd been right; his eyes were dark as Godiva chocolate. He stood so close the glitter in those dark eyes made her mouth go dry. She could feel the warmth coming off his well-muscled chest and arms. All male, definitely all male.

     "I-I was doing a little daydreaming myself."

     The man still blocked the door. She had to stay put.

     "Oh, sorry. I guess I'm in your way." His deep voice rumbled low in his throat. He edged to the side and held the door for her.

     With a quick "Thank you," she stepped into the store and felt the door close behind her. She fought the impulse to turn around and snatch another look. What if he caught her staring? She had never expected to meet someone that handsome in Riverside and felt a shred of disappointment when the sound of his footsteps faded away.

     An older gentleman -- sixtyish and balding, with a thick fringe of gray hair -- watched her from behind the front counter. "Is that Kellen Brand I see?"

     "Mr. McRae?"

     "My goodness gracious, it is you," he said, coming around the counter to give her a hug. "How many years has it been? Is your family here?" He glanced over her shoulder and out the screen door.

     "No, it's just me. Joey's back in Boston and Mom--" Her voice faltered for a second. "Mom passed away." Immediately, familiar tears burned at the back of her eyelids. She took a deep breath.

     "Oh no. I'm so sorry."

     "I'm here to settle up and sell the homestead."

     A slight frown pulled at his forehead. "I'm sorry to hear that too. We'd see Caroline every so often when she came to check on her renters or store some boxes, so I knew she had never sold the place. I guess I always hoped all of you would move back."

     She felt oddly touched by his comment. "Too many memories, I guess."

     He nodded. "Can I help you with something today?"

     A gray-haired woman appeared in the doorway at the back of the store, her arms loaded with boxes of tissues.

     "Put those down, Vera, and come over," Gerald called. "Look who's here."

     Vera turned and stared for a moment and then broke into a wide smile. "Why that looks like Caroline Brand's little girl." She came over and gave Kellen a hard squeeze.

     "I can't believe you two recognized me."

     "With that auburn hair and those beautiful green eyes? They're hard to forget, and you look just like your mother." Vera gave Kellen another squeeze. "It's good to see you, dear."

     "It's good to see you both too," Kellen said. Maybe Riverside held a few nice memories.

     "Did you see Luke Kenyon?" Vera asked excitedly. "I passed him outside."

     "As in old man Kenyon's ranch next door to our place?" Kellen asked.

     "Don't confuse the poor girl, Vera," Gerald interrupted. "She wouldn't know Luke or his daddy -- Mark left long before Caroline moved here."

     "Oh my goodness, that's right." Vera gave her a sheepish grin. "You would only remember Matthew, dear -- old man Kenyon," she said, with a wink. "And yes, he had the ranch next to yours. Matthew's only son Mark left home years ago. Some said he ran off, but we never heard from him again."

     Kellen recalled Gaddison's warning about the rancher next door playing hardball with the developer, and she couldn't help but smile. Old man Kenyon had chased her out of his pasture and out of his trees more than once, but he'd always had a twinkle in his eye when he ran her off.

     Vera rambled on. "After Mark left home, Matthew tried to run the place alone and take care of Beatrice, his wife."

     "I don't remember ever seeing Mrs. Kenyon," Kellen said.

     "I'm not surprised; she was ill for a long time. Matthew used part-time help here and there, but never wanted anybody around full-time. Beatrice passed on about four years ago, and right after that, Mark's boy Luke showed up one day to look in on Matthew."

     "The ranch looked deserted when I drove past," Kellen said.

     Vera gave her a comforting pat. "It is, dear. Matthew died about two years ago."

     Kellen experienced a surprising twinge of sadness at the news of Kenyon's death.

     "So, did you meet Luke?"

     "Actually, I think I ran into him coming in the store."

     "That's exactly what she did," McRae said, with a chuckle. "He smacked her with the door on his way out."

     Vera's hand flew to her heart. "Oh my word, are you all right?"

     "I'm fine."

     "Did you get to talk to him?"

     "No, not really. Just ran into him." Kellen smiled, knowing Vera trolled for gossip. She remembered her mother always saying Riverside folks lived for gossip. As small and poor as the town was, gossip was all they had for entertainment.

     "Oh, I thought something might have happened. He had a huge grin on his face when he climbed on his horse."

     "So he's a cowboy?"

     "I suppose so," Vera said. "He works at a place beyond the next ridge, and he rides over to check on his granddad's place. The old ranch just sat for a long time, but the boy's been slowly fixing the place up."

     "Enough chatter," McRae said. "I think this poor girl needs some supplies. What can we help you with, Kellen?"

     "Candles and a flashlight for starters," she said with a sigh. "My power's been turned off, and I can't get to the utility company until tomorrow."

     "You have to go to downtown Benton to pay your bill. Gerald, you better give her directions," Vera said.

     "I came through Benton on my way here," Kellen said. "I'll be able to find it."

     "Okay. Candles and what else?" Gerald called from halfway down an aisle where he pulled candles from a box.

     The bell on the front door jingled, signaling the entrance of another customer.

     Kellen squeezed down the crowded aisle and let him dump the candles in her basket. "Mr. McRae..."

     "Call me Gerald."

     He moved to the next aisle. "What else?"

     "Okay, Gerald. Sodas -- root beer if you have it." She followed him down the aisle. "Can I ask you a question?"

     "Of course."

     "Is it unusual for anyone to be shooting at anything out near my house?"

     He stopped dead and turned to stare at her. "What do you mean?"

     "I went to close my barn door before I left, and I heard a shot and then a bullet hit the barn."

     He didn't look nearly shocked enough. "How far away?"

     She shrugged. "I don't know. I couldn't see anyone."

     "No, I mean how far away from you did the bullet hit the barn."

     "I don't know exactly, about twenty feet or so I guess, maybe a little farther." She frowned. "I'm afraid someone was shooting at me."

     "Did I hear you say someone was shooting at you?" echoed a delicate voice from the end of the aisle.

     Gerald and Kellen both turned. A petite white-haired woman approached, her hair neatly permmed and a strand held back with a butterfly clip decorated with multi-colored rhinestones. Seventyish or so, she had an ethereal beauty, and when she got close enough, Kellen thought she smelled cotton candy.

     The tiny woman patted Kellen's arm with concern. "You poor dear. You must have been terribly frightened."

     "I was, a bit," Kellen managed.

     Gerald put an arm around the petite woman. "Kellen, this is Magda Lenehart. Magda, this is Kellen Brand."

     Magda daintily shook Kellen's hand.

     "Magda has just moved to Riverside, too," Gerald announced. "She's living in the pink two-story Victorian on Washington Street, right behind the store."

     "You're new here, too?" the Lenehart woman asked, her eyes blinking wide. "How wonderful! Please call me Magda, and I'll call you Kellen." She added another arm pat for good measure.

     Kellen couldn't help but smile. "Actually, I'm just visiting."

     "Kellen's settling her mother's estate. The farm out on Laden Mill Road," Gerald added knowingly.

     Heaven forbid someone in Riverside not know Kellen's business.

     "Well, maybe you'll change your mind and stay, dear. I moved into Birdie Roper's old house." Magda gave Kellen's arm another pat and whispered conspiratorially, "Birdie died, you know."

     "Uh, no. I didn't know," Kellen replied and hid a smile. The woman was adorable. And definitely smelled of cotton candy.

     "I just moved from Charlottesville." Magda idly waved a hand, no doubt in the direction she believed Charlottesville to lie. "And I love it here. I'm close enough to walk most places and get to exercise my knees."

     Kellen got the benefit of another arm pat. This time she grinned.

     Magda grinned back, and Kellen thought the woman's teeth looked brand new. But then again, maybe they were.

     "Now what's this about someone shooting at you, dear? That is simply unacceptable." Another arm pat.

     "Not at her." Gerald smiled indulgently. "Hunting season starts in two weeks, Magda, and I imagine somebody was just out testing a scope. No one around here is such a bad shot they'd miss anything by twenty feet or more." He put a six-pack of root beer in Kellen's basket. "Why in the world would you think someone was shooting at you?"

     Kellen stared at him and memories tightened her throat, memories of fistfights and being teased by town children. She shrugged a second time.

     "Someone was just using your barn for target practice and either didn't see you or saw you too late. The town is used to that place being empty. Been at least a year since the last renters left. By tomorrow, everyone in town will know you're back, and they'll stay away and give you your privacy."

     Kellen blew out a huge sigh of relief and almost chuckled when she remembered everyone knows everything in Riverside. "Thanks, Mr. Mc-- Gerald. You made me feel a whole lot better."

     "You don't have anything to be afraid of in Riverside," little Magda added.      "You'll be just fine."

     Twenty minutes later, she was back in her car with two sacks of groceries, a new flashlight, a box of candles, and a lighter. Gerald sent along a bag of ice and told her to stuff it in the freezer and use the freezer like a cooler.

     She stopped her rental car at the edge of the tiny parking lot before pulling out and peered in all directions for a handsome cowboy on horseback.

 

*****

 

     Kellen's cell phone chimed as she typed away at her laptop by candlelight. "Kellen Brand, may I help you?"

     "Hey, it's me, Joey. Didn't you check the readout?"

     "No, it's too dark."

     His voice immediately turned serious. "What do you mean dark? Where are you?"

     "At the farm. There's no power; they pulled the meter." She ran her fingers through her hair.

     "Oh man..."

     "Yeah."

     "...am I glad you went down there and not me."

     "Brat," she growled, but kept her smile and suspected he knew it. "What happened when you got back to work?"

     "They were glad I was back. Had a big assignment waiting for me too, a city councilman in trouble. What about you?"

     She sighed. "Allen is the best. He just said to take the time I need and keep in touch by phone and email. He would handle my clients, and if anything big came up, he'd call."

     "That's why you're in Riverside and I'm not," Joey said.

     She knew he was right; the newspaper business was too fickle for a young reporter to be gone for long. Always someone waiting to snake your spot. "It is better that I'm here," she agreed.

     "How's the town, same as always?"

     She filled him in on her afternoon.

     "I don't like you staying at that house in the dark, Kell."

     She forced confidence she didn't feel into her voice. "I'll be fine. The power will be on tomorrow, and I bought plenty of candles. I'm going to get this place cleaned up, meet the developer, and get out of here. Forever."

 

*****

 

     The black speedboat skated across the moonlit surface of the Tanawoc River with little or no sound, its two passengers dressed in black. A sheath of gray mist clung to the river's edge and swirled up at the entrance to the old boathouse. Using an almost-full moon, the boat driver steered without running lights for the last hundred yards to his destination.

     Thud!

     "Dammit, Two Toes, you hit the outside piling. Watch what you're doing!"

     "You want to drive? Be my guest," Anthony Tonato snarled back and straightened his bulky frame in defiance. "And don't call me Two Toes. The name is Tony."

     He watched Benny Rosa slither between the silver canisters stacked in the bottom of the boat, and he wished he'd never taken this job. Damn those gambling debts and damn his cousin Chuey for the hundredth time for ever introducing him to Don Carlo Palini.

     Benny kneeled in the prow to push the nose away from the piling. "How could you miss an opening this big?"

     "It's dark, asshole."

     "Try again and keep your voice down."

     Tony bumped the throttle and slipped into the boathouse. "Why do we have to bring this stuff in the middle of the night anyway? Don Palini owns this place, right?"

     "Yeah, he does and the church property next door, but we can't work in dinky little Riverside in broad daylight 'cause the town's got too many nosy residents. That's all you gotta know. I'm running this show, and I call the shots."

     As soon as the motor cleared the inside wall of the boathouse, Benny switched on his flashlight and aimed the beam toward the open archway at the opposite end. The stream of light faded into a cavernous room beyond. The boat drifted forward, and the beam refocused on the edge of a monstrous water wheel.

     "Whoa." Tony craned his neck to see.

     "Quit staring at the water wheel and get to work. This is the grist mill where the Don told us to drop off the canisters."

     "So tell me the plan."

     "Look, Two Toes, bringing you along on this job was not my idea. You're a screw-up, and you're gonna get somebody killed one of these days, and I don't want it to be me."

     He'd had all he could take of Benny's smart mouth and jabbed a finger at the skinny man's chest. "I ain't no screw-up, and don't call me Two Toes."

     "Why not? Everybody else does." Benny sniggered. "Behind your back. Like I said, you're a screw-up."

     Man, he wanted to pound this creep. "The Don personally picked me for this job."

     "That what you think? The Consigliere wanted to get rid of you after that last screw-up -- your second I might add. But Don Palini told the Consigliere, and I quote, "Tony gets one more chance, Peyton. It's three strikes and you're out, not two."

     "Wha--" Tony felt sucker-punched. One more chance? That was it?

     Sweat beaded up and trickled down the sides of his neck, even with the stiff wind coming off the river. Don Palini made guys disappear. Heck, Tony's first assignment had been to make another guy disappear. Except the guy was innocent, so Tony had let him go, and Don Palini blasted him for it. That must have been strike one. The Don had said it was imperative for a soldier to follow orders.

     "What's wrong, fat boy? Didn't you know?"

     Tony could see Benny sneering in the thin beam from his flashlight, and he felt sick.

     "This could be your third strike, but since they stuck you with me, I gotta make sure that don't happen. I'm gonna be watching you like a hawk. You even start to screw-up, and I'll shoot you myself." Benny set his flashlight on the dock. "Now hand up those canisters, and I'll stack them on the dock till the boat's unloaded."

     Tony would have to toe the line and keep this scumbag happy, or the guy would run right back to the Don and rat him out. He blindly shoved the first canister up at Benny. "Why so many one-gallon containers?"

     "It's hazardous waste."

     He dropped the canister.

     "Pick that up," Benny snapped, "and quit staring. It won't bite."

     "What's in there?" he wheezed.

     "You can't even say perchloroethylene, so what does it matter?"

     "Perchlora what?" Tony yanked his hands in at his waist

     "Perc. Dry cleaning solvent. Costs a fortune to dispose of the used sludge, and the boss has a lot of it with all those dry cleaning shops he owns in the city." Benny held out his arms. "Gimme another one."

     Tony eyed the canisters on the bottom of the boat.

     "The cans are sealed. We're gonna bury them."

     "In the ground?"

     "Where did you think we would bury them?"

     Tony gingerly picked up a can and held it out. "I thought we was just hiding them here in the mill."

     "Too dangerous."

     "But what if they leak like those waste drums up in Jersey. The Feds are still looking for Sculimdene over that one. That crap got in the groundwater, and the guy's toast when the Feds find him."

     "He's toast already," Benny snarled. "The Don sent a cleanup man. Couldn't afford for Sculimdene to sing when the Feds caught up with him."

     Tony felt his jaw start to drop and snapped his mouth closed.

     "Don't look at me like that. You screw up again, you're next. Remember what Don Palini said -- you get the third strike, and you're out."

     He shoved a can into Benny's chest. "Don't remind me."

     "I'm surprised the Don gave you a third strike when you messed up so bad on number two."

     Tony couldn't even argue. He really had messed up his second assignment. He'd had his target cornered in a bedroom when the man's kid ran in. No way could he off a guy in front of his kid, so Tony took off. Guess the Don now considered that to be strike two.

     He straightened and shot Benny a glare that had to look deadly since he really wanted to choke the guy. Benny curled and uncurled his fingers, ready to go for his shoulder holster if Tony made a move. He could squeeze Benny's throat to pulp in a matter of seconds, but then Palini's wiseguys would be after him. Seconds passed. He finally let loose a very audible exhale and reached for another can.

     Benny grabbed it, still wary. "We'll bury these cans later in that old cemetery at the top of the hill. By the time the cans rust and leak, the Don will have bought and sold this property and be long gone."

     He blinked. "For real?"

     "When we left, I heard him tell the Consigliere he intended to buy this grist mill and the empty farm next door and the ranch at the end of the road. He wants all the property from the church to the highway." He grabbed another can and kept his eyes on Tony's hands. "With all the Don's dummy companies, the Feds'll never figure out who buried the crap, and the government will have to clean it up."

 

*****

 

     Kellen awoke with a start, feeling as though she'd only slept a few minutes. She could see the moon through the open bedroom curtains, and she lit the candle on the night table to check her watch. Midnight. She lay back down and stared up at the flickering circle of light the candle cast on the wood-beamed ceiling. Grief hovered at the edge of her consciousness, yet she refused to mourn here in the house that harbored so many bad memories. Bad memories would taint her grief. She had to wait until she returned home to New York.

     Swiping away fresh tears, she got up and eased down the short hall and out the back door, guided by the moonlight streaming in through the open living room curtains. She stepped to the edge of the back porch and stopped. The total absence of sound amazed her, and she couldn't ever remember being anywhere so quiet. The slight breeze coming off the river silently lifted the strands of hair away from her face. The three-quarter moon shone so bright, a hazy halo surrounded the planet, and craters were clearly outlined on its surface.

     She stepped down off the porch and ambled toward the open field next door, brightened to a soft gray in the moonlight. Stars peppered the sky like hundreds of sparkling crystals. Never had she seen stars so bright or so many of them. She stared up so long, her neck ached.

     "God, it is absolutely beautiful." She hesitated a second. "Thank you."

     She stared at the heavenly display until she felt a tad dizzy. As she lowered her gaze, she saw dots of light in the distance, almost at the churchyard.

     "Fireflies," she whispered to herself, "just like when I was young."

     She watched the tiny dots moving about and wondered why there were none here at the farm. The dots bobbed up and down and looked to be floating downhill. A stiff breeze swept up from the river, and she wrapped her arms around herself for warmth. Within seconds, she sought the comfort of her warm bed. She could search for fireflies another time.