As I noted in earlier posts, I got waylaid by my muse last month and wound up having to write an unscheduled book. It happens sometimes. I don’t like it when it does but I have learned not to fight the muse when she gets into that mood. Anyway, Witchfire Burning is finished, has been edited and proofed and is ready for publication. It will go live on Amazon Friday, assuming everything goes right, and the print version will be available in a couple of weeks.
Because of the Halloween season, and because Witchfire Burning is coming out this week, I’ll be releasing the novella Skeletons in the Closet on the 25th of this month. Skeletons shares a setting and some characters with Witchfire Burning. Skeletons is the first of what will probably be three novellas centering on Lexie Smithson and her rather unusual family, even by Mossy Creek standards.
Dagger of Elanna will be released on November 22nd, fingers crossed. The book is finished but needs some more work on the editing front before I send it off to beta readers and then my editor. I also need to talk with my cover designer to see if we are on the same page regarding the cover image and typography or if we need to do some reworking of it.
After that will come Victory from Ashes. I’d like to have it out before the end of the year but I’m not making any promises. At the same time, I need to be working on the next Nocturnal Lives book. I’ve been putting it off because it will probably be the last book in the series. No, I’m not leaving Mac and company behind but that particular story arc is coming to an end. There will be some short stories and novellas here and there until I figure out how to handle the next “chapter” in their lives.
Series and series ends have been in my mind of late. I think we have all read series that kept going long after the author should have ended them. The characters either quit growing or they turn into something that bears little resemblance to the character we first knew and loved. The author writes in a way that you wonder if they no longer like the series. I am seeing this happen now with several series I have enjoyed reading. One I have quit buying altogether. One is no longer on my buy it as soon as it comes out — of course, part of that is my refusal to pay $13.99 or more for an e-book. The third has just dropped from my buy the hardcover to wait for the e-book to go on sale. So I want to be able to wind up this current story arc in a satisfactory way for the readers and the characters and then start a new arc that will keep my attention as well as my readers.
So, that’s my schedule for the next six months or so. Well, almost my schedule. There will also be at least one more short story in the Honor and Ashes universe, probably coming out shortly before Victory from Ashes. Over the next few weeks, I’ll figure out my schedule for next year and post it. Of course, I’m afraid of doing that because Myrtle the evil muse seems to take that as a challenge to see how many times she can pull me out-of-schedule and force me to write something I hadn’t planned on.
And now for the snippet. This is the opening chapter from Witchfire Burning. A version of the first part appeared on this blog about a month and a half ago. Those of you who read Mad Genius Club will recognize most, if not all, of the snippet. However, since I hadn’t posted it all here, I thought I would today. As with everything here, all rights reside with me. Copyright 2016 by Amanda S. Green
It’s never easy going home, especially when you left under less than ideal circumstances. But that’s the situation I found myself in. It might never have happened if it weren’t for my daughter, the light of my life. Four months ago, Ali turned five. A month after that I finally admitted she presented challenges I didn’t know how to deal with. Fortunately, at least in some ways, my mother did know how to handle my special little girl. Like it or not, that meant returning home to Mossy Creek, Texas, smack dab in the middle of the buckle of the Bible belt.
And that made life very interesting for the citizens of Mossy Creek where normal was not something you encountered every day.
So I called my mother, scheduled a leave of absence from work and made our plane reservations. There were a few stops and starts and the trip had been delayed twice. But now our bags were packed and Ali and I were about to walk out the front door. That’s when my pocket started vibrating. Well, to be honest, it was the cellphone in my pocket that started vibrating but you know what I mean. For a moment, I considered ignoring the call. I knew from the ringtone it wasn’t my mother or any of the rest of the family. As far as work and most of my friends knew, Ali and I had already left town. Even so, years of conditioning had my hand digging into my jeans pocket before I realized it.
“Momma, we have to go!” Ali tugged at my free hand, pulling me toward the door.
“Hang on, sweetheart.” I glanced at the display, recognizing the area code if not the number. “Go make sure you didn’t leave anything you want to take with you. This won’t take long. I promise.” I waited until she raced toward her bedroom before answering the call. “Hello?”
“Moira Quinn O’Donnell?” a woman asked.
“Yes.” A hint of concern fluttered in my stomach. She might have been calling to sell me siding or solar panels or the like but I doubted it. Something about her voice not only sounded serious but official. Besides, she had used my full name, something very few knew.
What can I say? When you grow up with the name Moira and your mother insists on the proper Irish pronunciation and you live in Texas, let’s just say it is easier to go by your middle name, especially if that name is easily pronounced.
“Ms. O’Donnell, my name’s Carli Sanderson. I work with Julianne Grissom.”
My brows knitted into a frown. “What can I do for you, Ms. Sanderson?”
“Ms. O’Donnell, I don’t want to worry you, but have you spoken with your mother recently.”
That flutter of concern spiked and I swallowed hard. Whenever someone started a statement with “I don’t want to worry you,” it usually meant there was something to be worried about. If that wasn’t enough, Julianna Grissom and I were friends going back to childhood. If trouble wasn’t brewing, the call would have been from Annie Caldwell. Julianna Grissom was her very professional, all attorney persona. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Then I looked toward the hallway, making sure Ali was still safely in her room. Whatever was going on, I most definitely did not want to worry her.
“I spoke with her two days ago. Why?”
“Ma’am, Ms. Grissom asked me to check with you. We don’t know any of the particulars, only that the Sheriff’s Department attempted to do a welfare check on your mother after she failed to meet friends yesterday. While there’s no evidence of foul play or, to be perfectly honest, of anything being wrong, they haven’t been able to make entry into the house to be sure.”
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I had a pretty good idea why the deputies hadn’t been able to enter the house. Unless I was badly mistaken, they hadn’t even been able to enter the yard. That was just one of the reasons why I’d moved to Montana more than ten years ago. In Mossy Creek, when someone said you lived on the wrong side of the tracks, they weren’t talking about your financial status or social standing. Far from it, in fact. Life in Mossy Creek had been different from the day the town was founded. Mundane mixed with supernatural and, well, my mother might not be Serena Duchamp but she had been known to cast more than a spell or two.
Then there was the house. I swear it is more alive than a lot of folks I could name. If it did not want to let someone in, nothing, not even a battering ram, would get the doors open. The only thing keeping me from panicking was the belief the house would not keep help out if my mother needed it. Me, it never hesitated to try to lock me out. But Mom belonged there and it would protect her.
At least I hoped it would.
“What can I do?”
“Ms. Grissom said you were coming to town today. Is that still your plan?” Sanderson asked.
“It is.” I glanced at my watch. Ali and I were going to have to hurry if we wanted to make our flight. “Assuming no problems with our connecting flight, my daughter and I should be in town by five.”
“With your permission, I will let the sheriff know. Ms. Grissom would like you to stop by the office when you get here. Hopefully, we will know more by then.”
“All right.” I thought for a moment. “Have you checked with either my sister or my brother to see if they’ve heard from our mother?”
“They are my next calls, ma’am.”
“All right. Tell Ms. Grissom I will give her a head’s up when I reach Dallas.” I didn’t wait for her to respond. Instead, I ended the call and stuffed the cellphone back into my pocket. I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach but there was nothing I could do about it, at least not until I reached Mossy Creek. But it did necessitate a slight change in what I packed and in my plans not to check a suitcase.
“Ali, you about ready?” I called from my bedroom as I knelt just inside my closet. There, bolted to the floor, was a safe. Inside were my service weapon, several other handguns along with my badge, ID and a few other items. Blowing out a breath, I retrieved an HK .45, pancake holster, ammo and my badge and ID. “Ali?” I repeated as I secured everything in a small, hard-sided case which I locked and then dropped inside my bag that now would have to be checked.
“Momma, can I take Ruffles?” She stood in the doorway, a battered teddy bear almost as big as her in her arms.
“No, baby. Not this time. Why don’t you take Freckles instead?” I asked, referring to a smaller but equally beloved teddy bear.
“Okay.” She grinned and raced back to her room.
Five minutes later, we pulled out of the driveway and I did my best to put Sanderson’s call out of my mind. This was Ali’s first plane ride and I knew she was excited. The last thing I wanted was to worry her. After all, as far as she knew, this was a fun trip to see her grandma. She did not need to know that grandma had apparently gone missing and we might not be able to get into the house because it didn’t like me.
Heaven help me, how was I going to explain the house, not to mention everything else, to a five-year-old?
Of course, the drawback to moving about as far away from home as possible without leaving the Continental United States was that even by air it took hours to return to Mossy Creek. It had seemed such a good idea at the time. Now? Not so much. Between worry for my mother and a very cranky five-year-old, I wanted a drink, some answers, food and sleep and not necessarily in that order.
Having to wait for my bag at luggage claim – and then making sure neither the gun nor anything else had gone missing – had not helped my mood any either. Following that had been the wait for the bus that would take us to the car rental hub and another line as we waited for the rental. After everything else, it didn’t surprise me one bit to discover that the mid-sized car I had reserved was not available. Oh, they were so very sorry and they would do their best for me. In the end, Ali and I drove off in a mid-sized SUV after making sure her booster seat had been properly installed.
Despite all that, we still managed to beat most of rush hour, which appears to start around three in Dallas, and I guided the SUV down Main Street in Mossy Creek a little before five. Ali had fallen asleep almost as soon as we left the airport, leaving me too much time to think and worry. Even though I knew there was probably a perfectly good reason for why my mother was nowhere to be found, I also knew there were a number of other very bad reasons.
“We at Grandma’s?” Ali asked sleepily as I parked the SUV. She stretched and looked around, a frown darkening her little face as she did.
“Not yet, sweetie. Momma needs to talk to someone first.”
I switched off the engine and climbed out of the SUV, grabbing the leather messenger bag I used instead of a purse as I did. I hurried around to the passenger side and helped Ali out. She reached for my hand and followed, almost dragging her feet as she looked around. A car slowed and the driver honked in greeting as we waited to cross the street. Habit born when I still lived here had me waving back even though I had no idea who the driver had been. That was just Mossy Creek. Everyone knew everyone else or at least acted as if they did.
A few moments later, I pushed open the door to the law offices of Metzger and Grissom. A slight smile touched my lips as I did. Julianna “Annie” Grissom and I met the first day of kindergarten and had become fast friends. Her grandfather, a great old man who had passed away a few years ago, was the Metzger on the sign. Annie and I had both fled Mossy Creek right after high school even if for different reasons. When she called almost a year ago and told me she had returned, I couldn’t believe it. But this was proof. She had hung out her shingle and, judging from the number of people still in the waiting room even though it was almost five, her practice was thriving.
“May I help you?” a blonde in her early twenties asked. Her desk sat next to the door leading to the rear of the office.
“Please. Moira Quinn O’Donnell to see Ms. Grissom.”
The moment the words were out of my mouth, I heard the whispering begin. That was the Mossy Creek grapevine at work. I had no doubt were I to turn to face those sitting and waiting to see Annie or Sanderson, I’d discover at least half of them with their phones out and fingers rapidly moving as they texted the news that yet another wayward daughter had returned to the fold.
Except I hadn’t returned, at least not permanently.
Nor did I plan to.
I closed my eyes and braced myself. I knew the moment I turned around, I’d be enveloped in a hug and then given a lecture for being gone so long. Standing there, looking not that different from when I’d left home was Peggy Russell, owner of Peggy’s Café. Located next door to the courthouse, the café had been the center of town gossip for longer than I’d been alive. Miss Peggy was also the town’s conscience and a key link in the grapevine. What she happened to be doing at the law office just then I didn’t know but I wouldn’t put it past her to be there simply because I was.
I plastered on a smile and turned. As I did, the color drained from my face as I recognized even more of those sitting nearby. “Miss Peggy, it’s good to see you.”
She cocked her head to one side and narrowed her eyes. As she did, Ali tugged at my hand, reminding me she was there. “Momma, who’s she?”
I bent and lifted Ali, settling her on my hip. “Ali, this is Miss Peggy. If you’re real good, I’ll take you to her café for an ice cream tomorrow.” Miss Peggy’s brown eyes narrowed even more and I had no doubt what she was about to say. “Miss Peggy, this is my daughter, Ali.”
For a moment, she said nothing. Then she smiled and extended her hand to Ali. Gone was the intimidating woman and, in her place, was the short, grey haired grandmotherly figure I remembered from my childhood. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Ali. You make sure your Momma brings you to the café for ice cream.”
“I will,” my daughter said just as seriously.
“Ms. O’Donnell, Ms. Grissom will see you now,” the receptionist said.
I nodded and chewed my lower lip. Before I could say anything, Miss Peggy reached out and gently touched my arm. When I looked at her, worry and something else filled her eyes. She suddenly looked older and more worn than I’d ever seen her. “Quinn, why don’t you leave her with me? I’ll take her to the café and you can join us there when you’re done.”
For a moment, I hesitated. Then I nodded. The last thing I wanted was for Ali to listen as Annie and I talked about what might have happened to my mother. “Thank you, Miss Peggy.” I shifted Ali slightly on my hip so I could look her in the eye. “Sweetie, Miss Peggy is a really good friend of mine. You go with her and I’ll come just as soon as I can.” Then I looked back to Miss Peggy. “If you don’t mind getting her some dinner, I’d appreciate it.”
“And ice cream?” Ali asked hopefully.
“Only if you eat everything else Miss Peggy serves you first.” I tried to look stern but failed. Unless Miss Peggy had changed a great deal in the time I’d been gone from Mossy Creek, she would make sure my daughter had all her favorites for dinner, including ice cream. Then I swung Ali to the floor and knelt in front of her. “Ali, you mind Miss Peggy and no–” I held my hands in front of me and wiggled my fingers. I would not, could not say it out loud. Fortunately, I didn’t need to. Ali nodded seriously and then crossed her heart. “I’ll be there as soon as I can, Miss Peggy,” I added and handed her Ali’s backpack.
“You do what you need to and don’t worry about this little one. We’re going to be great friends, aren’t we, Ali?” She grinned down at my little girl and, seeing Ali smile back up at her, I relaxed a little. Ali normally did not respond well to strangers but Miss Peggy had always been good with kids, often to the chagrin of their parents.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ali said.
I gave Ali a quick kiss on the cheek and watched as she and Miss Peggy walked across the reception area hand-in-hand and out the door. Then I turned and hurried to where the receptionist waited for me.
“Quinn, it’s so good to see you!”
The moment the door closed behind me, Annie pulled me close in a rib-cracking hug. Then she held me away from her, her blue eyes looking me up and down. As she did, I felt every hour of travel and every mile we had covered. My jeans and tee shirt were rumpled. I had a feeling my short black hair was mussed and not in that sexy, just had sex sort of way. Compared to her black silk blouse and grey slacks, not to mention her red hair in its French twist, I had no doubts who looked like she belonged on the cover of a fashion magazine and who did not.
I did as she said and watched as she moved to the antique hutch across the office. A moment later she turned, holding a glass of what was unmistakably whiskey She handed it to me and then moved to sit behind her desk. I waited, watching as she pulled a thick file from a drawer and placed it on the desktop.
“Quinn, I know you must have a million questions about why I had Carli call this morning.”
All I could do was nod. As I did, my stomach did a slow roll. I already didn’t like how this was starting.
“I’ll tell you what I can but, before I do, I need to ask a few questions.”
Another nod and I leaned back, breathing deeply. Then I took a sip of the whiskey, waiting for her to continue.
“To say I know little to nothing is putting it mildly.” I frowned. Of all the things she could have said or asked, that was the last thing I had expected. “Why?”
“After we left for college, she had my grandfather draw up a number of legal documents. When I checked her file this morning after learning she was missing, I was surprised by what I found.” She paused and opened the file, pulling out several documents. “Not only was there a will as well as living will and DNR, all things I’d have expected, but there was also a series of documents giving you complete control of all her assets, including the house, at any time when she is unable to deal with her own affairs or when she is unreachable. I think this situation more than satisfies the last requirement.”
She slid the first document across the desk to me. “This is her power of attorney. It gives you full access and control of her finances. You are to do whatever you think necessary for the upkeep of the house and her other holdings. It also gives you the power to liquidate any assets you feel necessary. It includes her bank accounts, credit cards, creditors. Well, you get the gist.”
I nodded. What else could I do?
Over the next half hour, and two whiskeys, Annie explained how Mom had made sure I had complete control of her assets should she be unable to handle her affairs for herself. The documents had been very carefully drawn up so that only Mom appearing and taking control back would void them. As I looked at them, noting several had been executed the day after I left for college, I was surprised and touched and more than a little suspicious. Mom had certain gifts, or talents as she called them, but precognition wasn’t one of them, at least not as far as I knew. Had she seen the need for such legal steps or had she simply been covering all her bases? Whatever the answer, once she was home, the two of us were going to have a very long talk.
“Because I know what it’s like to come back here and have little surprises sprung every time I turned around,” Annie continued, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “I won’t do that to you. I know this is more than you can take in right now. So I want you to call or come see me when you start figuring out what questions you need to ask.”
“Thank you.” I remembered her calls to Montana last year, telling me how her grandfather had seemed to be reaching out from beyond the grave to surprise her and tie her to Mossy Creek. The fact she had not run for the hills spoke volumes about – well, I’m not sure what it spoke volumes about since she had not only stayed in Mossy Creek but had gotten married and opened her law practice here.
“The documents in the file are yours. They’re certified copies and they should be more than enough to satisfy the bank and anyone else you might need to deal with until your mother takes over again.”
I nodded, glad she still seemed to hope Mom would be found alive.
“Here are keys to the house.” Now she did grin and I blew out a breath. She knew my issues with the house. Growing up, she had seen the gate refuse to let me in or, worse in some ways, slam shut as soon as I stepped through, catching my coat or some other article of clothing in it. “I also have keys to her Cadillac as well as several other vehicles, including a new Ford F150. A copy of her safe deposit box key and several others I have no idea what they are for are on the key ring as well. I checked my grandfather’s notes from when he first met with your mother and then when they later spoke about all this and the only thing I found was that your mother said you would know what the various keys were for.” She handed me the keys and then the file folder.
“Thanks.” There was no sense telling her I had no idea what the keys were for. Hell, I hadn’t known Mom had any vehicles besides her Cadillac. She always had a Cadillac. No matter how many miles she had on it, every three years she traded the current Caddy in on a new one. But to find out she had a pickup and more, that did surprise me. “Annie.” I shook my head, smiling slightly. It felt strange calling her that. Growing up, she and her brother had done their best to be called anything but the common nicknames associated with their given names. Not that I could blame them. When you are redheads and twins named Julianna and Andrew, the temptation to call them Anne and Andy – as in Raggedy Anne and Andy – you found other names to go by. “Have you heard anything else about my mom?”
“No. I’m sorry. Until they can get inside to check the house, there isn’t much the Sheriff’s Department can do except keep an eye out for her.” She shook her head, her expression worried. Then she smiled and moved around the desk to sit in the chair next to mine. “I had hoped you’d have Ali with you.”
Now I grinned. “I did.” When I told her how Miss Peggy had offered to take Ali to the café, Annie nodded, unsurprised. “Tell you what. Let me see what I can find out about Mom – and see if that damned house will let me in – and then we’ll set something up. I’d like you to get to know Ali.”
“Sounds good.” She glanced at her watch. “If you hurry, you should be able to catch the sheriff before he leaves for the day.” She paused again and I could tell she was trying to figure how to say something. “Quinn, I don’t know if you’re aware of it or not but Sheriff Glasser didn’t run for re-election. The new sheriff is Lucas Moore.”
I smiled slightly. I knew that name. The image of a tall, gangly teen who the kids today would term a geek or a nerd came to mind. He’d been a couple of years ahead of us in school. My brother Ciaran had adopted him and, as a result, Lucas had spent a lot of time at the house. Even though he’d never noticed me, I’d had a crush on him for the longest time. The last I heard, he had gotten a scholarship to some school back east. Surely that wasn’t who Annie meant.
I guess I would find out for sure sooner or later.
“He came in and did some housecleaning after the election. Glasser had run a pretty tight ship but after what happened with my mother, everyone knew he had been letting things slip. So, apparently, did he. He retired and Lucas won easily. The SD under Lucas is about the best in this part of the state. You can trust them to do everything possible to find out what’s going on.”
I hoped so. Otherwise, Mossy Creek was going to be reminded what happens when I refuse to let something drop.
“You’d best get on your way, Quinn. Lucas told me when he called that he would wait for you as long as he could. The sooner you get home and see what’s there, the better. Assuming the house – and I still say it is a great house even if it has a weird sense of humor – lets you in, you need to let the deputies take a look around.”
“I will – after I rescue Ali from Miss Peggy. Otherwise, I have a feeling my little girl will be so hyped on sugar I’ll never get her to bed.”
Annie’s grin did nothing to reassure me. “How about breakfast in the morning?”
“Sounds good but let me get back with you. I need to see what I find at the house first.”
Annie nodded, her expression serious. “Do you want me to come with you?”
It was tempting but this was something I needed to do on my own. Well, not quite on my own. Ali would be with me. “No. You get home to Sam and Robbie.”
For a moment, it looked like she might argue but then she nodded, a loving smile touching her lips. Seeing it, I reached over and gave her hand a quick squeeze. I’d been more than happy to learn she had married Sam Caldwell and adopted his son. Then, as she placed a gentle hand against her abdomen, I looked at her, arching one brow in question. Seeing the blush color her cheeks, I had my answer and leaned over to hug her.
“Don’t say anything. We haven’t told anyone yet.”
“I suggest you tell your grandmother and Sam’s folks before they figure it out.”
She blushed even more and grinned. Then she stood and pulled me to my feet. “I’m glad you’re home, Quinn, even if your mom’s pulled a disappearing act. Look at it this way, she could have copied my mother and been caught standing over the dead body of the man everyone thought was her worst enemy and who it turned out she had been having an affair with.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed. Annie’s mother had been the bane of her existence most of our lives. Annie returned to Mossy Creek after her mother’s arrest. Annie had almost lost her life proving her mother’s innocence. That she was now happily married and expecting her first child meant more to me than she’d ever know.
“You get yourself home, Annie. I’ll go see what the sheriff has to say.”
Instead of agreeing, she chewed her lower lip. A moment later, she pulled her cellphone from her pocket and placed a quick call. I listened, wondering what she was up to, as she asked to be connected with the sheriff. She waited, shaking her head before I could ask what she was up to. A few minutes and another phone call later, she slid the phone back into her pocket.
“Miss Peggy will have Ali and a to-go bag ready for you at the back door of the café in five minutes. That way you don’t have to run the gauntlet tonight.”
“Thanks.” I gave her another hug. It wouldn’t stop the grapevine but at least it would save what was left of my patience and probably my sanity. I had a feeling I’d need both before the evening was done. “I’ll call later to let you know what I find at the house.”
Five minutes later, I watched as Miss Peggy escorted Ali out the back door of the café. A few minutes after that, I parked in one of the half dozen spaces in front of the Sheriff’s Department. Before getting out, I looked at the building and a wave of memories washed over me. Growing up, I had paid more than one visit there, often in the back of a squad car. I hadn’t been special like my sister and brother. So, because I hated how they were always getting our mother’s attention, I had “acted out”, as they called it now. I knew better. I had been very close to being a juvenile delinquent. At least I’d managed to make very good grades at school. That got me into college with a full ride – even if my advisor and dean had warned me to keep my nose clean – and that had been when I left home.
With Ali’s hand firmly grasped in mine, I walked up the steps to the front door and stepped inside. Not much had changed in the years I’d been away. The metal detectors in front of the elevators were new but not much else. Then, as I tried to decide whether I should wait to see if the deputy manning the front desk greeted me or if I should call the sheriff, the elevator dinged and the doors slid open and the world seemed to come to a screeching stop.
Of everything I’d expected, this had to be the last thing, or close to it. It certainly was the last thing I needed just then. Of all the people in Mossy Creek, he had to be the one to step off the elevator. We’d often been at odds when we were in school. Then, in high school, we finally gave into the attraction we both felt and I lost my virginity to him. What should have been a time to remember fondly turned into a nightmare when, only a day or two later, I discovered that he’d been bragging about how he had bagged one of the O’Donnell girls. I wish I could say I wasn’t proud to admit I’d broken his nose and probably a couple of ribs when I jumped him after school and beat the hell out of him but I couldn’t. To be completely honest, he’d been lucky I wasn’t like the rest of my family. Otherwise, he’d have been turned into a toad – or worse.
Now he stood before me, big and tall and muscular, his nose slightly crooked from the damage I had done to it. At least he looked no more pleased to see me than I did him. God above, was this an indication of what this trip home was going to be like?
“Moira,” he all but growled and I had no doubt he used my first name because he knew I hated it. “What the hell are you doing here?”
He growled again as I returned the favor, using his hated nickname. Too bad. He ought to have better manners around my daughter.
Ali gave my hand a tug and I looked down at her.
“Mommy, why he mad at you?” She moved closer to me as Drew Grissom, Annie’s twin brother, looked down at her.
“He’s not mad at me, sweetie. Deputy Grissom is just having a bad day.” I looked at Drew, wondering if he understood what I wasn’t saying. If not, I hoped he remembered the consequences of opening his mouth when he should have kept it shut.
“That’s right.” He smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes.
Ally hugged my leg and looked up at him. I could tell from the way she tried to almost melt into me she was upset. That, in turn, only served to send my temper higher. But I couldn’t lose it now, not with her there. So, hoping to reassure her, I gently lifted her and settled her at my hip, smiling slightly as she wrapped her legs around my waist.
“Deputy, perhaps you can help us,” I said, doing my best not to let how I felt to see him show either in my voice or on my expression. “I’m supposed to meet the sheriff.”
Before he could answer, the elevator dinged and the doors once again slid open. Sheriff Lucas Moore stepped out. No doubt about it. It was the same Lucas Moore I remembered. He might have added a good four inches in height and a good fifty pounds, all of it muscles, but there was no mistaking him. For a big man – he had to stand at least six-four and weigh over two hundred pounds, he moved with a silent grace as he approached. Even though he said nothing, I knew he had instantly sized up the situation. To my surprise, however, instead of saying anything, he simply stepped forward and, with a jerk of his head, motioned Drew back. The look on Drew’s face spoke volumes and I had no doubt the two of us would be talking soon, whether I wanted to or not. But, for now at least, he would step back and follow the sheriff’s lead.
“It’s been a long time, ma’am. Don’t know if you remember me–”
“I do remember you, Lucas. It’s good to see you.” I smiled. I’m not ashamed to say it was more to irk Drew than anything else. “And it’s Quinn. Whenever someone says ma’am, I start looking for my mother.”
“I hear you there.”
He grinned and his face lit up. Damn, if he had looked like this in high school, every girl within twenty miles would have been after him. Drew’s growl – and what was it with him and growling? – brought our attention back to the matter at hand.
“Have you been to your mother’s house yet?” Lucas asked as he escorted Ali and me across the lobby toward the main doors.
“No,” I answered and went on to explain how I had stopped by Annie’s office first.
“Then why don’t we meet you there?” he suggested.
We shook hands and, as Ali and I left the building, I heard him tell Drew to go get the car. Knowing this was my chance for a few minutes alone, I didn’t hesitate. With a firm grip on Ali, I jogged down the steps and to the SUV. Like it or not, it was time to go home.
Mossy Creek hadn’t been home for a long time. The only reason I’d come back was Ali. God, it had been hard enough to call my mother and tell her I needed help with her. My wonderful, perfectly mundane daughter had suddenly been anything but mundane. She had made the wind dance – fortunately, she had done some when we were alone. If that hadn’t been enough, she had then called fire. That had put the fear of God into both of us. If I hadn’t been there when she did it, or if the wrong people had seen. . . I didn’t want to think about the possibilities.
And that was only part of why I’d finally come home, the part Mom knew about. I’d waited to tell her the rest of it until we were here. Now it might be too late.
And this – Mom’s disappearance – was beyond the pale. How was I supposed to deal with whatever the hell my mother had gotten involved in this time with my little girl here? Having to deal with the Drew as well simply rubbed salt in the wound.
Ten minutes later, I pulled in front of the house I had grown up in, the house generations of my family had lived in. I parked on the street almost directly in front of the main gate. For a minute, I sat there, studying the house. The eight-foot tall stone fence with wrought iron toppers was designed for privacy and ran along three sides of the house. The front of the fence was wrought iron. Welded finials topped the fence; I knew from personal experience the finials were as effective at deterring someone from trying to climb the fence as they were decorative. Then there was the iron gate. It was closed, as it always was unless guests were expected. I didn’t need to get out of the car to know it was also firmly locked. Getting through the gate would be the first hurdle.
The house itself was one of the oldest homes in town. It also looked almost new. People for years had wanted to know how my family managed to keep in such good shape. No one saw workmen, not very often at any rate, doing any maintenance. When asked, each generation’s matriarch would simply smile and say it was an old family secret.
And man was it some secret.
Three stories, sprawling, balconies on the top floors for the bedrooms, it had been both a joy and a prison growing up. Not that any of my friends had understood. Well, a few had but their families had their own weirdness. That was the only thing that had kept me sane all those years. Mossy Creek isn’t your normal town and if you lived on this side of the tracks, weird was the norm of the day.
Wanting to get this part over before the cops arrived, I climbed out of the SUV. Part of me wished I’d dared leave Ali with Miss Peggy. She did not know about this part of my life and I couldn’t help wondering how I was going to explain to her that the house hated me and wouldn’t let me inside. But I hadn’t left her with Miss Peggy and I had to find out if the house was going to cooperate and let me in before the sheriff arrived.
“This where Grandma lives?” Ali asked as she craned her neck to look around.
Guilt washed over me at the question. In spite of my issues with the town and my family, I’d been wrong not to bring Ali here before now. At least Mom seemed to understand. Not once in the more than a dozen times she had come to Montana after Ali’s birth had she said anything about us not coming to visit. I knew she wanted us to but somewhere over the last eleven or twelve years she had come to understand that I would come back in my own time. I just hoped it wasn’t too late now.
“Yes, sweetie. This is where Grandma lives and it’s where I grew up.” I drew a deep breath and said a quick prayer that the house wouldn’t do something I’d regret. “It’s a very special house. Did you know the gate only lets people your grandma wants inside?”
Please let it let me inside.
I could count on one hand the number of times the gate had not played its games with me. It let me know in a number of different ways that it did not approve of me. I was a disappointment. I wasn’t like the rest of the family. Because of that, I had little faith that it would let me in now. But maybe it would let Ali in. After all, she was special, just like my mother and my siblings.
Almost without realizing what I was doing, I started talking, partly to Ali and partly to the gate. I needed to get inside, not for myself but for my mother, for Ali and for the rest of the family. The gate knew I wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t important. Please, let me in. I would do only what was necessary and then leave. But I needed to find out what happened to my mother. Was Mom even inside?
The gate swung open slowly, soundlessly. Knowing better than to hesitate, I slipped inside as quickly as I could, not trusting that it wouldn’t try to slam shut on me. It didn’t surprise me when the gate swung shut behind me. That’s what it always did. Family was allowed inside – usually. But no one else, not without family approval and, until I knew Ali and I could get inside, I wasn’t going to leave the gate open.
“That was neat, Momma.” Ali grinned gaily as she looked over my shoulder at the gate. “Can you make it do it again?”
I smiled and rubbed my cheek against hers. “Maybe later. Let’s see if we can get the house to let us in now.”
I put Ali down and took her hand. Together, we approached the three steps leading up to the porch that ran the length of the front of the house. I slowed and Ali matched her pace to mine. Then I once again began talking, this time to the house, reminding it I was family. I had grown up there. Yes, I had been gone a long time but it knew the blood and, despite everything, I was of the blood. I needed to get inside. I had the key – and I held it before me in my left hand. But I knew that would not work if the house wanted to keep me out. Please, I needed to get in because I was worried about my mother.
Swallowing hard, I reached out, key in hand. Just before I slid the key into the lock, the knob turned and the door swung open. Ali giggled happily and pulled at my hand, wanting to go inside. This was it. Like it or not, I was home and the house had recognized me. Now I needed to do a quick sweep of the house before the sheriff arrived. After all, who knew what my mother might have been doing and whether it was something normals – well, as normal as anyone in Mossy Creek could ever be – needed to know about.