Authors: Wynde, Sarah
Natalya Latimer’s ability to see the future has been as much curse as gift. Knowing that she would someday find his dead body destroyed her relationship with her best friend and lover. But when it finally happens, nothing turns out the way she expected it to and suddenly she’s flying blind, with no gift to tell her where she’s going.
Copyright © 2013 Wendy Sharp
A Gift of Timeis a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events is coincidental.
All rights reserved.Prologue
“He’ll kill her. Please, can’t you help me?” The woman tried to tug on the doctor’s white-coated arm, but her hands passed through him as if he were as insubstantial as air. She stared at him and then backed away, turning to the nurse.
“Why won’t you listen to me?” she begged. “You have to find her.”
Rose wrinkled her nose. She shouldn’t have stopped in the emergency room. The noise and chaos had drawn her in, but she liked visiting the hospital to see the babies, not the people in pain.
And this poor woman seemed to be in agony. She hadn’t even realized she was dead yet.
Sirens in the distance grew louder. Another ambulance was arriving. Nearby voices sounded increasingly urgent, but the noise didn’t drown out the words of the begging woman. “I told her to run. I told her not to say a word. You have to look for her. Please, please, please listen to me.”
Rose stepped forward, her feet moving as if disconnected from her brain. Her brain was telling her to leave, to go upstairs where she could coo over the little ones in peace.
“They can’t hear you,” she said instead.
The woman spun, staring at Rose. She wasn’t old, but her eyes held the weary look of one of life’s punching bags and tired lines dragged down her mouth.
“He calls her the spawn of Satan,” the woman said, her hands clenched into fists. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
“He sounds like a jerk,” Rose answered matter-of-factly. A man in green scrubs rushed through her and she stepped closer to the woman, moving out of the doorway and into the room where the medical staff labored over the woman’s body.
The woman choked out a surprised laugh. “Can you save her?” she asked, her frantic voice calming.
Rose opened her mouth to answer honestly. She was a ghost herself. As the woman would soon discover, ghosts were practically helpless in the world of matter. Nothing either of them could do would make a difference to anyone still living. “Yes,” she heard herself saying. “Yes, I can.”
“Oh, bless you.” The woman’s shoulders sagged in relief. “Thank you so much, thank you—I can’t tell you—it means so much—I’m so grateful.” Tears shone in her eyes, but didn’t spill over.
Oh, dear, Rose thought, feeling a tug in the center of her chest. What had she done?
Much later, tromping her way through Ocala National Forest, Rose tried to be philosophical about the whole thing. The tug felt sort of like needing to pee. Not that she’d had to use a bathroom any time in the past several decades, but she remembered the sensation. First, a subtle message, a gentle push that said perhaps it was time to get up and go somewhere. Then a more insistent awareness. Now a sense of pressure, impossible to ignore.
She would have stayed far away from that emergency room if she’d had any idea what she was getting into. It was the holiday season and for the first time since her death, she wasn’t trapped in the house where she’d died. She’d had plans. She wanted to visit her childhood church and listen to carols, wander around town and admire the decorations, drop in on friends, ghostly and otherwise—not trudge through the woods.
If only that ghost had stuck around long enough to answer Rose’s questions. But she’d faded away in the midst of showering Rose in profuse thanks, leaving Rose with nothing but an increasing sense of urgency, a tug pulling her farther and farther into the middle of nowhere.
And then it stopped.
Rose stopped, too. She looked around her. Dappled light drifted down through trees draped in grey, wispy Spanish moss. The dense forest might have felt primeval to a stranger, but Rose had grown up in the days when visiting the cool springs made summer bearable. It felt as much like home to her as her own backyard. But what was she doing here?
The brush next to her stirred and Rose stepped quickly away. Black bear? Coyote? The moment of panic faded as she remembered she had nothing to fear from wildlife. Besides, the brown shape crawling out from the undergrowth didn’t look like any wildlife she’d ever seen.
“Oh, my,” Rose murmured. She took another step back and then a step closer. “Oh, dear.”
The girl lifted a dirty, tear-streaked face. Her pinched look and the shadows under her eyes made Rose think she hadn’t eaten in far too long, but the determined set of her chin said she wasn’t giving up. She wobbled as she pulled herself to her feet, staring directly at Rose, her eyes wide.
“Good morning,” Rose said brightly. “I’m here to rescue you.”
The little girl didn’t answer. She blinked a couple of times, but her expression didn’t change.
“Sadly, I don’t know how,” Rose admitted, opening her hands. Even as she said the words, though, the tug started again, pointing Rose deeper into the forest.
Rose touched her chest, feeling the softness of her pink sweater under her fingers. She wouldn’t have thought that was the right direction to go at all. But the pull didn’t feel like a sensation she wanted to ignore.
“All right,” Rose said. “Off we go then.”
She smiled at the girl and the girl stepped in her direction, her face awed, lips parted, eyes alight with wonder.
They were off to a good start, Rose thought with satisfaction.Chapter One
Natalya Latimer hummed as she drove down the dark and winding road leading to her cottage. Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of something. When the snow lay something-something.
She wasn’t sure why that song was stuck in her head. She hated Christmas. Worst holiday of the year. Except maybe for Valentine’s Day, but at least that was a one-day excuse to eat chocolate. Christmas was just a reminder of all she’d lost, all she’d never had, all she never would have.
Sometimes knowing the future sucked.
She could remember how magical the holiday used to be: the lights, the music, the anticipation, the excitement, the love that surrounded her, flowing like warm honey. She shouldn’t complain, she knew. She was lucky to have the family she did. But the magic didn’t exist without children to believe in it, and Natalya would never have children of her own.
Still, this year hadn’t been so bad. Her brother Zane was delighting in his role as father-to-be. Her brother Lucas seemed to be adapting to his unique family structure. Her father Max had glowed with the joy of having all his children home, and a grandchild on the way. And her sister Grace had planned the day to the dotted i’s and crossed t’s. The holiday hadn’t been special, not the way it ought to be, but it was pleasant enough.
Her eyes narrowed, and she put a hand up to shield them. Lights—and not the Christmas decoration kind—glared ahead of her on the road.
That was odd. This road, her road, wound along the edge of the Ocala National Forest and led to a dead end. Eight houses were tucked into the trees, bordering a small lake, one of the many that dotted the region. But she wouldn’t have expected any of her neighbors to be out this late on the evening of Christmas Day. The only light she should see ought to be her own car’s headlights separating the blackness.
And then her breath caught in her throat and her heart froze.
A sheriff’s car, door open, lights on, stood at the side of the narrow road. It was parked carelessly, half blocking her lane, half slanted into the grass.
Ten years ago, she’d foreseen this night.
She’d been waiting for it to arrive ever since.
She took her foot off the gas pedal and let her car glide to a halt behind the other. Dread flowed through her like acid, turning her muscles to jelly. For a moment, she dropped her head and let it rest against the steering wheel, fighting the urge to cry or scream.
Christmas Day? Seriously? The universe must really hate her.
Her fingers shook as she turned the key in the ignition and fumbled her seatbelt open, but her eyes were dry as she opened the car door and stepped out.
She knew exactly what would happen next.
She’d walk around to the side of the sheriff’s car. In the darkness, the overhead light bar’s swirling blue-and-white would cast a surreal aura over the road, the trees and grass no more than a blur of green and brown as she saw the dark-soled shoes and the long legs of Colin Rafferty, her ex-boyfriend, lying face-down in the dirt and grass.
She’d rush to him. His tawny hair would be curling at the nape of his neck, longer than usual, and she’d feel the soft tickle of it against her fingers as she slid them along his skin, searching for his heartbeat. She’d force his body over, struggling to shift him, already realizing it was too late.
There’d be no pulse. She’d feel the cool and waxy texture of death under her warm touch. His skin would be tinged with grey, his lips turning blue. She’d smell death in the air, waste in more senses than one.
Ten years ago, that was all she’d known.
The knowledge had destroyed her life.
Tonight, if she tried, she could probably capture more. When it came to the near future, her sight was as clear as the memories of her near past. If she let herself think about it, she would know everything that would happen next: the phone calls, the ambulance, the deputies showing up, the hushed voices, worried faces. The funeral, his grandmother’s grief.
Instead, she took a deep breath and tried not to think. Slow and steady. She’d get through this miserable night as she had so many others: one heartbeat at a time.
But as she rounded the front of her car and stepped onto the grassy verge of the road, her feet stopped moving. She blinked and then blinked again, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. The lights, the surreal colors, Colin down on the ground—all that was right. But a shadow crouched over him, too small to be human.
She gasped in uncertain horror and the shape turned toward her, revealing a face, pale and dirty, topped with disheveled dishwater blonde hair.
Human, definitely human, Natalya realized with relief. But young. What was a child doing here? As she paused, the child’s hands dropped off Colin’s chest and she—he? it?—scrambled away and into the darkness.
“Wait!” Natalya called, hurrying forward along the length of the car. “Come back.”
She should go after the child. It was too late to help Colin. But as she reached him, she dropped to her knees anyway, ignoring the sharp gravel pressing into her flesh as she felt for his throat. Under her fingers, the outer edge of the trachea was solid, resilient, and it took barely a moment for her to find the throbbing carotid artery next to it.
He had a pulse.
His skin felt warm.
And he was stirring, lifting his head off the ground, his eyelids fluttering open and revealing his grey eyes.
“Nat?” He sounded dazed. But his words were clear, not slurred or faint or heavy with pain, nothing indicating a medical emergency. “You’re here. What happened?”
She rocked back onto her heels as he pushed himself to a sitting position. “You tell me. What is this, Colin?” Anger simmered in her tone. Was he playing a practical joke on her?
But there was no smirk and no “gotcha” in his voice as he repeated, “You’re here.”
He reached for her, wrapping his hand around the back of her neck and tugging her forward, drawing her closer until his firm lips took hers. Startled, Natalya opened her mouth to protest but he smothered her words with his kiss.
For a split second, Natalya resisted, and then she melted. She kissed him back, her lips hot under his, the taste and smell of him filling her senses, so familiar and yet so long denied. His lips explored, caressed, his hand twining into her long hair. She felt the warmth of his touch tingling along her scalp, the pressure of his arm against her back, the heat of desire stirring in her veins.
In some back corner of her mind, she knew she should stop him. This wasn’t who they were, not anymore, but he felt so good. So good, so warm… and so alive.
Through the thick fabric of her sweater, the touch of his hand on her back was lighting a fire, embers of passion sparking into life and flaring up with unforgotten heat. She let herself slide forward, let her hands slide up and over his shoulders, her body press against his, her soft curves touching his solid chest.
She wanted to be closer, to feel her skin against his, but he pulled away first, his lips leaving hers with what felt like reluctance. He let his hand drop from her neck and smooth its way down her back, resting his cheek against hers for a long silent moment.
Natalya took in a deep, shuddering breath, her lips burning, her heart racing. In a shaky whisper, she asked, “What the hell, Colin?”
“Not hell,” he murmured. “Definitely not hell.”
“And not heaven, either.” She pulled away, a flush of annoyance beginning to replace desire. What did he think he was doing? He was supposed to be dead, not kissing her.
“You sure?” His voice held a trace of humor.
“Positive.” She scrambled to her feet and looked down at him.
He looked—like himself. Brown hair, the color of the sandy dirt in the nearby pine scrub forest. Grey eyes, the shade of the 4PM sky on a Florida summer day. Even features, a straight nose, a touch of evening stubble scraping his cheeks, the mouth that fell into a natural smile. Only the faint laugh lines creasing the tops of his cheeks marked his face as any different from the last time she’d stared at it, years ago. He hadn’t changed. And he looked perfectly healthy.
“What was that about?” she snapped at him, anger covering up her hurt. If this was a practical joke, it was the cruelest trick he’d ever played.
He rubbed his chest, glancing around at the night. “I’m not sure.”
Her eyebrows arched. Her fury faded. He sounded authentically confused and the motion of his hand against his chest set off warning bells in the back of her head. “Are you in any pain?”
“No.” He shook his head, but then added, his tone doubtful, “Not now, anyway.”
“Was it your chest?” Natalya asked. “Did it feel like squeezing? Or fullness? Any difficulty breathing?”
“Hmm.” He didn’t answer her, his eyes on the trees and scrub lining the road.
“Were you lightheaded? Did you pass out?” Impatience was making her skin crawl. Maybe he’d had a heart attack. She needed to get him to a hospital.
“Quit being a doctor, Nat.”
She bit back the anger that wanted to spill out. Voice carefully controlled, she said, “I am a doctor, Colin. And as a doctor, I think you need medical attention. Immediate medical attention. We should call an ambulance.”
“I don’t need one,” he answered. “I’m fine.”
“You were lying by the side of the road, Colin. That’s not fine! Not to mention—” She let the sentence break off.
“Not to mention I ought to be dead?”
“Not to mention that,” she agreed, gritting the phrase out through clenched teeth.
“I’m not, though. I’m not.” He sounded thoughtful, more surprised than doubting.
Natalya reached for his hand. His warm fingers clasped hers and she helped him to his feet. He stood too close to her, looking down, their eyes and hands locked together until Natalya turned her head away and stepped back, breaking his grasp.
The overhead lights from his car were still flashing, lending the night the surreal glow she knew from her memories. The air felt right, the temperature cool and slightly humid, but not cold. She could smell the forest, pine trees and earthy decay. Everything fit her long-ago precognition—except that Colin was alive.
“What happened?” she asked him, not letting her voice wobble. “What are you doing here?”
He frowned. “It’s like a dream.”
Confusion, disorientation—those were symptoms. But of what? Drugs and alcohol were obvious, but she ruled them out immediately. She might have barely spoken to him in the past ten years, but he wouldn’t have changed that much. Head injury?
She scanned his head, searching for any sign of damage. No blood, no bruising, but not all dangerous head injuries were visible. She craned her neck trying to see the back of his head, and then brought her gaze back to his face, staring directly into his eyes. His lips parted and he began to step toward her. She put a hand up to stop him and said briskly, “Your pupils are evenly dilated. No sign of concussion.”
“I didn’t hit my head,” he said, pausing in his movement. “At least I don’t think I did.”
Infection? Dehydration? Shock? Stroke? But despite his confusion, he sounded much too coherent and clear-spoken for any of those conditions. She needed to know more.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” she asked.
He rubbed his chest again, and started slowly. “I was driving and—”
“Why here?” Natalya let frustration win and interrupted him. Ten years ago, she’d left Tassamara for medical school and residency. When she moved back, she thought she and Colin had had a tacit agreement to stay out of one another’s spaces. She spent as little time in town as she could get away with. What had he been doing on the road that dead-ended at her house?
He didn’t look at her. “I wasn’t paying attention. I was just driving around. Thinking.”
Natalya pressed her lips together. She wanted to yell at him for being an idiot. They both knew she was destined to find his dead body. Surely he could have at least tried to stay off the roads he knew she’d be driving on? But there was no point in saying anything—they’d argued about the inevitability of her precognition for months a decade ago, back when he refused to quit his job as a sheriff’s deputy.
“But I saw something,” he continued. “I stopped to take a look. I got out of the car and came around to the side… ”
He stopped again.
Natalya waited, trying to control her impatience.
“It’s like a dream. There was a girl.”
Natalya’s eyes widened. She’d forgotten. How could she have forgotten? She whirled around, her gaze searching the darkness, but the child was nowhere to be seen. “That wasn’t a dream. There was a girl. What could she be doing out here?”
“There was another girl, too. Older. But that was… ” He let the words trail off. “No.”
“What are you talking about?” Natalya glanced back at Colin. She should call an ambulance. He should get a complete medical evaluation as soon as possible. He could have had a heart attack, a blocked artery, a mild stroke, an aneurysm—but he was supposed to be dead anyway. If a child was lost, they needed to find her.
“A dream. A weird dream.” He stepped away from her, toward the forest, eyes scanning their surroundings and called out, “Hello? Are you out there? Can you hear me?”
He paused and listened. Natalya listened with him. She could hear the sound of her own breathing, the stirring of wind overhead, a faint distant cry that might have been coyote. But nothing that sounded like a nearby child.
“What could a child be doing here?” she asked.
Colin shook his head, walking away from her toward the trees. “Let’s find her. She couldn’t have gone far.”
“She must have,” Natalya said, pointing out the obvious. Colin glanced her way, his hands working at his belt. “It’s two miles to the nearest house and we’re on the edge of six hundred miles of forest. She had to have come pretty far to wind up here.”
“There is that,” he agreed. He turned on the flashlight he’d been retrieving from his belt, and let its illumination play over the forest outside the light spilling from his car.
Natalya could see the trees within the glare of the overhead light bar, but nothing beyond them. She’d been in the forest at night before. Without a flashlight or a full moon or a campfire, the darkness was impenetrable. Why would a child choose the blackness over the comfort offered by the warmth of the light? It wasn’t a good sign.
She tried to recall what she’d seen of the girl but the sight had been too quick, too unexpected. Still, the girl had been dressed and not in rags. And she’d been thin, but not emaciated, pale and dirty, but not filthy, not with the kind of ground-in dirt that would have turned her light hair dark and her skin grey. Whoever she was, she hadn’t been in the woods for months.
That probably meant she was hungry.
“Grace gave me some leftovers from dinner,” she called to Colin’s back as he headed toward the edge of the pool of light.
“Grace cooked?” Surprise colored his voice but he stayed focused on the forest.
“She did,” Natalya confirmed, a hint of the amusement she felt leaking into her own voice. Grace was many things but a cook was not one of them.
“How was it?” he asked, the skepticism clear.
“Incredibly good. Roast beef, mashed potatoes with lots of butter,” Natalya said with more enthusiasm than honesty. The beef was on the dry side and the rolls were cold. But Colin wasn’t her target audience. She’d skip the mention of the over-done vegetables—she wasn’t likely to entice a child out of the darkness by raving about carrots, even if they were perfect instead of mushy.
“Dessert was fantastic,” she added truthfully, raising her voice so the sound would carry. “She made this strawberry trifle with sponge cake. I think she thought she was feeding an army, though—we’ll be eating it all week. Unless someone else wants some, that is. I’ve got a bowl full of it in my car.”
She paused by the passenger door of her car and waited, listening. Colin had figured out what she was doing. He turned toward her, watching. “Oh, and Christmas cookies.” She raised her voice again, speaking a bit louder. “You remember the kind my mom used to make?”
“The sugar cookies?” Colin asked. “With the colored sugar?”
“Those, and also the ones with the chocolate thumbprint on top. And remember the butter frosting kind? The really sweet ones? Grace made those, too. I’ve got a whole tin of them here.”
“I’d be happy to share,” she prompted. “With anyone who was maybe a little hungry and wanted a cookie.”
The rustle in the brush came from behind them, closer to Colin’s car. He swung the light that way, still aiming it low, in time to see the girl crawl out from under a bush.
She stood and Colin let the flashlight follow her up. Natalya took several steps toward her, cataloging injuries. A long scratch down one cheek, visible bruises on one arm, but the dark circles under her eyes were exhaustion, not damage.
As Natalya got closer, the girl flinched, taking a single step backward and glancing over her shoulder as if checking for an escape route.
Natalya froze. In a voice as gentle as she’d use with a wild creature, Natalya said, “What’s your name?”
The girl’s chin rose, but she didn’t answer. Her blue eyes, as they looked from Natalya to Colin and back again, were wary.
Natalya crouched, putting herself closer to eye level with the girl. “I’m Natalya.” She tilted her head toward Colin. “That’s Colin. We’d like to help you.”
The girl didn’t answer. A dozen questions burned in Natalya’s brain, but she settled for asking only the most important. “Are you hurt?”
The girl’s throat moved as she swallowed, but she didn’t speak.
“I’m a doctor,” Natalya continued, voice still gentle. Behind her, she could sense Colin shifting to the side. He stayed a comfortable distance away, but he was working his way, as if casually, between the girl and her path back to the trees. “I can see the scratch on your face and some bruises on your arm. Does anywhere else hurt?”
The girl’s hand rose to touch her face before dropping again. With a hint of defiance, she lifted the edge of the ugly brown dress she wore. Her knees were scraped, her legs scratched and dirty. Blood oozed out along the strap of her cheap plastic sandals.
“Your feet?” Natalya made no move to touch the girl.
The girl nodded.
“I can help with that. Let’s get you some food first and then we’ll get you cleaned up. Okay?” Natalya waited, not standing until the girl tilted her head in a barely perceptible nod.
“If you want to grab the cookies, I can take her to the station.” Colin spoke quietly. He’d managed to move around the girl to the side of his car.
“No way.” Without taking her eyes off the child, Natalya gestured with an open hand toward her own car. The girl began to limp toward her.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Colin asked.
“I found you unconscious by the side of the road not ten minutes ago.” Natalya kept her voice soft. “And you think I’m going to let a kid ride in a car you’re driving? Not a chance.”
The girl looked at her sideways as she limped past, her lip curling in what looked like satisfaction. She went straight to the back passenger-side door and tried to open it, then glanced at Natalya. Natalya fumbled in her pocket, then pulled out her keys and pushed the button to unlock the door. The girl opened it and climbed inside.
“Fair point,” Colin said, moving to join Natalya where she stood. “Do you want to take her to the station?”
“We should probably take her to a hospital, get her checked out first,” Natalya said with a frown. The nearest emergency clinic was forty-five minutes away, the hospital even farther.
“She seem that badly hurt?” Colin asked, turning off his flashlight and reattaching it to his belt.
Natalya made an equivocal gesture with her hand. “Did you look at her?”
“Yeah. Scratches, some bruises, nasty blisters.”
“Those bruises aren’t fresh. From the dirt, the scratches, the tangled hair, the dried blood—she didn’t wander away from home two hours ago. She’s been lost for a while.”
“Not feral, though,” Colin said. “She’s no stranger to automatic door locks.”
Natalya nodded in agreement. “She’s thin, but not emaciated. But she could be dehydrated. If not, she’s been drinking untreated water, which in Florida means parasites. Giardia lamblia. Cryptosporidium.”
“Brain-eating amoebas?” Colin asked, an edge of humor in his voice.
“Wrong time of year,” Nat replied. “Those need warm temperatures.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“Not much to do about any of it unless she gets sick, though,” Natalya said. “It might be better to try to find her parents first. You should get to the hospital, though.”
“I’m fine,” Colin answered.
“You don’t know that.”
Colin thumped himself in the chest. “Heart’s beating like a champ. No pain.”
“You were rubbing your chest before. It hurt then, didn’t it?”
“It was indigestion,” he told her. “Hurt like a mo—hurt a lot. But it was just gas.”
“That’s not how it works. Time equals muscle when it comes to heart attacks.” Colin didn’t look convinced, so Natalya continued, her worry lending persuasion to her tone. “A heart attack happens when the blood supply to part of your heart is blocked, damaging heart muscle. If the rest of the heart works, the pain can stop. People have heart attacks and walk around afterward as if nothing happened, but that doesn’t mean the damage isn’t there. And if an artery is blocked, you could have another heart attack any time.”
Colin frowned. “I need to start an investigation. I’ve got to call around, see if anyone’s reported a missing child. Check missing person reports, get some dogs out here to retrace her trail, get in touch with DCF—I’ve got a lot to do.”
“One of your deputies could do all that,” Natalya suggested.
“What about—” He paused and tugged his earlobe thoughtfully.
“What are you thinking?” Natalya recognized that look. He was going to try to talk her into something.
“Your lab is what, five minutes away?”
“Yeah,” Natalya answered warily.
“You could check us both out there. You’ve got some fancy-pants scanner, right?”
Natalya stopped herself from rolling her eyes with an effort. Fancy-pants was not the word she’d use to describe the multi-million dollar imaging system she used for her research. “I have a high-end imaging system, yes.”
“Could you use that to see if anything’s wrong?”
“I’m not a cardiologist or trauma specialist,” Natalya started, before pausing. Her imaging system was probably the best system in the state of Florida, certainly better than anything at a local 24-hour clinic. And although General Directions wasn’t a medical facility, it was well-stocked with medical supplies. She could run the same tests a hospital would run.
She should send Colin to a hospital.
She shouldn’t get involved.
But it would save a lot of time.
“I can’t treat you at GD. I don’t have the right drugs and I’m not about to do an angioplasty. But if you do have a blocked artery, we could get Dave to fly you to Orlando or Jacksonville. You’d get better cardiac care there, anyway.”
“That’s the ticket.” He grinned at her. “And I can get a missing person investigation started.”
“Found person, surely,” Natalya murmured, wondering if she was making a mistake.
“Same difference, happier ending.” He looked away, back toward her car and the hidden child. She could see his frown, but the word was barely audible as he added, “Maybe.”Chapter Two
Colin slid into the passenger seat of Natalya’s car with a wince. He hated being a passenger. Nat’s pointed question about whether it was safe to drive when he didn’t know why he’d passed out was valid, though.
Why had he passed out?
And what had happened while he’d been unconscious?
He reached up and flipped open the mirror on the sun visor, angling it so he’d be able to see the girl in the backseat. In the darkness, her face was shadowed, so he pushed on the overhead light. While he’d been radioing in and parking properly, Nat had given the girl food. She sat now with the open tin of cookies by her side, a Santa Claus sugar cookie clutched in her hand, but her eyes were glazing over, the lids fluttering down. Her head tipped to one side and she jerked it back upright, eyes flying open. She saw him looking at her and scowled, eyes narrowing and lips setting stubbornly, before her scowl disappeared in a yawn.
Colin smiled as he turned off the overhead light and settled back into his seat. He didn’t mind her glare. It was a good sign, he thought, that her fear didn’t have her cowering in the corners.
“Is she asleep?” Nat asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Getting that way. Did she say anything?”
“Not a word.” Nat shot a quick glance at him. “So tell me what happened.”
He rubbed his chin. “It’s going to sound crazy.”
She raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I have very high standards for crazy.”
His answering chuckle was wry. Living in Tassamara was like that. On the surface, Tassamara was a sleepy rural town, supported by the occasional tourists passing through and business from the local farms, orchards, and ranches. Underneath that façade, though, lay a vibrant community composed of open-minded scientists, psychics, and people who didn’t quite fit in the outside world.
Long-time residents claimed the town was built on a convergence of ley lines or a vortex point. They said it had been a place of dimensional energy that nourished spiritual gifts for thousands of years, always attracting people with unusual abilities. Maybe it was true. As sheriff, he’d certainly had to deal with his share of strange events and odd occurrences. Still, this night was one of the weirdest of his life.
“It was like a dream,” he said.
Nat shook her head. “Don’t start there. Start at the beginning. You were in your car and—?”
He’d been driving aimlessly, after a long day capped a long week. Earlier in the month, an apparent double murder turned into a massive drug case involving Feds from all sorts of three-letter agencies. Two days ago, it culminated in a debacle of a raid, leaving three people dead, one in the hospital. The agencies would be pointing fingers and fighting about responsibility for weeks. Despite the holiday, he’d spent hours working on his share of the paperwork.
He didn’t blame himself. It might be his town, but neither the drug trafficking nor the botched federal raid were under his control. But the combination of death brushing its wingtips too close and the holiday had him pensive. And nothing could soothe him like the stillness of a dark night and the feel of an automobile engine humming. He loved the solitude of the quiet roads, the control and power of having his hands on a steering wheel.
He’d been waiting to die for a decade. He could still remember the exact moment Nat had told him what she’d seen, as vividly as if it were happening in real time. When she’d started talking, most of his attention had been on the overflowing recycling bin, wondering if they’d missed the right day to take it out, until her words dragged his gaze to her luminous blue eyes.
As the years passed, he tried not to dwell on it. Nothing he could do, no way to change it. Nat’s foresight was inevitable, immutable, destined to happen as forecast. Still, knowing death was impending changed a man’s perspective.
“I saw a lump by the side of the road,” he said. “I thought trash at first. Figured someone dumped something. And then it moved, so I thought animal—maybe a raccoon? But it didn’t fit. Wrong size, wrong shape. Too small for a bear and dog didn’t make much sense. I was already past it, so I stopped and started to back up, just to check on it.”
He fell silent. He’d already been feeling bad, but not bad-bad, just kind of off. Indigestion, he’d thought. Too much of his gramma’s turkey and stuffing, although they’d eaten dinner at noon, hours earlier. But as he’d turned to look over his shoulder, raising his right arm to rest it on the back of his seat, a sharp stab of pain had broken into his concentration. Gasping, he’d dropped his arm, turning his hand to push on his chest as if pressure would relieve the tension, hunching his shoulders into the hurt.
He’d known then.
It was time.
It was over.
He’d tried to take a deep breath, but could only suck in shallow gasps of air.
“I felt this—pain.” The word seemed entirely inadequate. Pain was a sprained ankle, a broken toe, a bad bruise from a game of touch football that got rough. This was something more like agony. “But then it eased off. It hurt but not so much.”
He’d figured he’d made a weird move. Pulled a muscle, maybe. Or pinched a nerve. The sweat on the back of his neck had cooled rapidly and while he still hadn’t felt well, sort of fuzzy and shaky, the stabbing misery had disappeared as if it had never happened, leaving only the dull grinding pain of his previous indigestion.
“I stopped, got out of the car and then…” He fell silent again. The lump he’d seen had moved, had raised a head. He’d seen the blonde hair, the eyes, and realized he was looking at a child. It made no sense. What was a child doing by the side of the road, this road, after dark on Christmas Day?
But he couldn’t think it through, because the pain had returned, intense and churning. He’d put a hand on the car, bracing himself, hoping the cold metal would break through the fog of agony clouding his vision.
He could barely feel it. His hands had felt far away, disconnected, almost like they weren’t part of his body any more.
“The pain was back?” Nat asked.
He nodded. He turned again and looked at the child in the backseat. Her eyes were closed, her head tilted to the side. She’d dropped the cookie.
“And then what?”
“I stepped out.” His voice was quiet.
“Out of what? The car?”
“No. No, I was already out of the car.”
“Out of what then?”
He glanced at Nat. She was focused on the dark road, not looking at him. “Out of my body,” he answered.
“You—what?” She turned her eyes to him for a brief moment, before returning her gaze to the road.
“I know,” he said. It sounded ridiculous. But it was what had happened. He suspected he wasn’t going to be sharing this story with too many people.
There was a moment of silence before Nat said, “Okay. Keep going.”
He felt his lips curling up, amusement stirring. If Nat was having trouble with this first part, she was never going to believe what came next. “This is when it started to feel like a dream. There was a girl there.”
“Not her?” Nat tilted her head in the direction of the backseat.
Colin shook his head. “No, another one. Older. A teenager. Wearing a costume of some kind. And she was not real happy with me.”
“A costume?” Nat sounded disbelieving.
“Not like Halloween or MegaCon. She wasn’t a superhero. God, that would have been strange.”
Nat coughed slightly and he could see her trying to hide a smile.
“Well, yeah, it was strange anyway. Stranger, I guess,” he admitted. “No, she was dressed old-fashioned, that’s all.” He ran a hand through his hair, then over his face, trying to remember. “It gets blurry. I think I asked her if she was a shinigami.”
“You know, like in—never mind.” No way would Nat know. She’d never gotten into manga. “She didn’t know what a shinigami was either. Or a reaper.”
“A what?” Nat asked again.
He sounded crazy. He knew it. He’d warned her. “You know, like a spirit guide, someone to take me on to the next plane of existence, the afterworld. But she laughed and said if she was a spirit guide, she’d be the kind stopping and asking for directions every five minutes, because she was as lost as a goose in a snowstorm.”
“Okay, let me get this straight. You’ve left your body. You think you’re dead. And you’re talking to a girl in costume who’s making jokes about geese?”
Put like that, it didn’t sound crazy. It sounded ridiculous. “I told you, it was a dream.”
Nat shrugged. “Maybe. Then what?”
It was a dream that had felt very real, though, in its own way. He hadn’t been in a strange place or a surreal world. He’d been exactly where he was, standing above his body, talking to the teenager. The little girl had darted into the underbrush at the side of the road when he got out of the car, but she’d crept closer, wide-eyed and uncertain. She’d reached a tentative hand out to him and patted his back gently. His body hadn’t moved, but he had, crouching down next to her as he asked the teenager about her.
“The little girl moved me,” he said, remembering. She’d tugged at his body, pulling on his arm, working hard to turn him over. And the bigger girl, she’d said something. But it was gone, whatever it had been. The memories were slipping away, the rich, vivid images fading like a dream after being awake for too long.
“Rolled you over?” Nat asked sharply.
“Yeah, I think so.”
Nat looked over her own shoulder at the girl. “Not easy. She’s what, maybe fifty pounds? You would have been a dead weight. No pun intended.”
“No,” Colin agreed. “The other girl helped, I think.” Had she? She’d crouched down, too, almost on top of them both, her hands and arms passing straight through the smaller one. They’d touched his face, both of them, soft touches, but then the bigger girl shifted, directing the little girl down to his chest.
And then… he didn’t know what had happened then. There’d been light and heat and pain again, the burning in his chest back for a moment that lasted forever, and then Nat over him.
That had seemed as much a dream as anything. Ten years had passed since she’d touched him, a decade without her blue eyes the first sight he saw as he woke. Yet opening his own to meet hers had felt like falling back into the world as it should be, as it was meant to be.
“You know everything else,” he said. “I woke up. You were there.” The words sounded so simple. So easy.
Nat was silent.
“What do you think?” he asked her.
“We don’t dream when we’re unconscious,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
They’d reached the gate barring the way into GD. The security booth was dark, no guard on duty, but Nat pulled to a stop and rolled down her window. She punched a code into the computer pad next to the gate.
“She’s asleep, right?” Nat asked without looking back.
“So we’ll run some tests on you first. See what we find. Did you call DCF?”
“Not yet. I’ve got dispatch checking missing persons and making some calls.”
She frowned at him. “Child Protective Services will need to send a caseworker. They’ll probably want a psychologist present when you interview her.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Colin agreed. “But it might not be that complicated. How does a kid wind up lost in the forest?”
Nat’s brows drew down as she pulled the car forward. “Camping?” she offered. “Hiking?”
“That’d be my guess. So maybe the rangers and some frantic parents are searching for her already.”
“You’re thinking she just wandered off?” Nat asked.
Nat looked skeptical. “On Christmas Day?”
Colin shrugged. “Big meal, maybe the parents took a nap afterwards. Kid gets bored, next thing you know…”
“It’s a long walk from the nearest campground. I don’t think a child could cover that much distance in an afternoon.” Nat pulled into the parking space closest to the cobblestoned walkway leading to the front door. A lamppost shed a warm glow of golden light, while the bushes and shrubs that lined the path and bordered the building were sprinkled with the delicate white glimmers of hundreds of tiny holiday lights.
“Next possibility then.” Colin glanced over his shoulder at the sleeping child, then gestured to indicate they should talk about it outside. Stepping out of the car, he turned, leaning on the roof. In a quiet voice, he suggested, “The parents could have been in a car accident on one of the back roads.”
Nat winced. “Okay, that sounds more plausible. But still, to get to where we found her? It’s more likely she was on a trail. Maybe an ATV accident?”
“Yeah.” Colin nodded in agreement, his face grim. “No helmet, though.”
“And wearing a dress and sandals.” Nat shook her head, but not as if she were ruling out the possibility, more as if she were regretting the chances parents were willing to take. “It makes sense.”
“With any luck a couple of phone calls will clear it up. We’ll get her home before morning.”
Nat didn’t say anything, but then she frowned, blinking a few times as if perplexed.
“What is it?” Colin asked immediately.
She licked her lips. He felt an immediate and unsurprising surge of lust. Haloed by the light from the lamppost, Nat’s dark hair glinted with color, while the shadows made her blue eyes mysterious and smoky. She was beautiful. And he was alive.
The smile felt like it started in his chest and built its way up until it reached his face. He knew he was grinning at her like an idiot, but he couldn’t stop himself.
And with Nat.
Sometimes it felt as if he’d loved Nat forever.
He hadn’t, though.
It had only been thirty years.
He’d been a stubborn five-year-old, desperately trying to convince his mother—who already had seven children—that he needed a baby sister, one who would be all his. He would get to boss her around like his older brothers and sisters bossed him around, but he would never, ever hit her and he would play with her whenever she wanted. She could be Princess Leia when they playedStar Wars. He needed someone to be Princess Leia. Unfortunately, his mother had remained resolutely unconvinced of the importance of his need.
Then, on the first day of kindergarten, he’d met Lucas. Lucas didn’t just have a baby sister; he had a baby brother, too. He didn’t seem to be as convinced as Colin was of his incredible luck, though, and he’d generously offered to share. Colin distinctly remembered his first visit to the Latimer house. He hadn’t even seen baby Zane. One look at the wide blue eyes and round cheeks of Natalya’s three-year-old self and he’d decided.Mine.
The arrangement had worked well for a long time. Through high school, through college, past graduation, up until the moment he got his first job as deputy and she had her premonition of his death—and then they’d hit a dead end. He’d let her go. Made her go, really, and not without hurting her.
She’d gone to medical school and they didn’t speak for years. After the bitter words of their last fight, the first time he’d spoken to her had been at her mother’s funeral. He couldn’t remember what he’d said, but she’d said, “Thank you,” her voice calm, collected, but her eyes showing the depth of her pain. After completing her residency, she’d returned to Tassamara.
He’d managed to draw her into a precarious almost-friendship—he could say hello to her on the street without her glaring at him—but it survived through a careful dance of manners and caution and patience on his part. He knew—or suspected—that if she had her choice, she’d never speak to him again. But Tassamara was a small town. That hadn’t been an option.
And now—well, he was alive. Now everything changed.
“I can’t—nothing,” she said abruptly, ignoring his grin. “Let me get the security guard to carry her in.”
She turned away. Before she’d gone two steps, Colin called out. “I’ll get her.”
She turned back. “Unconscious, remember?”
“Not without warning.” He dismissed her concern as he reached for the car door. “If it happens again, I’ll have plenty of time to set her down.”
The girl had fallen asleep slumped against the door. Her hand had crept up to her mouth, the thumb not quite inside but tucked next to her lips as if she would have been sucking it if she’d been a little younger. Carefully, Colin opened the door, slipping one hand in to catch her before she started to slide out. She stirred but didn’t open her eyes.
As he unbuckled her seatbelt, he considered his approach before taking the most straightforward route. Sliding his hands under her arms, he tugged her out and up, lifting her high and drawing her close, before tucking one arm underneath her legs. She wasn’t light, but something about her weight balanced in a way that made carrying her totally unlike picking up a fifty-pound sack of mulch for the yard. As if automatically, she wrapped her legs and arms around him before dropping her head into the curve of his neck.
“Da,” she muttered.
Colin froze. The tiny voice, the weight of her head, the soft tickle of her hair against his skin, the smell of light soap and sandy dirt, no hint of the tang of sweat—it was a visceral punch to the gut. Somewhere out there, in the forest or not, a man, a father, had lost this child. He’d get her home to him, he swore silently. He’d find her da for her.
He could hear the worry in Nat’s voice. He turned and started toward the door, before saying, his own voice hushed so as not to wake the girl, “She spoke.”
“Oh, good,” Nat answered, hurrying to catch up with him. “Selective mutism from trauma isn’t uncommon, but maybe when she wakes up she’ll be willing to tell us what happened.”
At the door, she pressed a keycard against an unobtrusive black pad, reaching for the handle at the sound of a loud click. As she opened the door, she looked back at Colin. “What did she say?”
Colin’s gaze met Nat’s. Her face was open, her eyes clear. He could feel the warmth of the girl’s arm against his neck, her heartbeat against his arm. He opened his mouth to answer and then stopped, staggered by the moment.
This should have been his.
If their lives had been what he wanted, what they wanted, how many times would he have already carried a sleeping child from a car while Nat held the door for him? Dozens? Hundreds?
This should have been theirs.
“Da,” he answered, his tongue feeling thick in his mouth, not able to hide the sorrow he felt.
A flicker of a frown passed across Nat’s face as if she were confused by his reaction, but he could see the exact instant she recognized what he was thinking as her face stilled and her chin angled up. They stood there, motionless, staring at one another.
He wanted to say so much to her. He shifted the sleeping child, but before he could summon the words, a security guard was pushing open the door.
“Dr. Latimer. Everything okay?” The guard’s eyes were wary, his hand close to his weapon, but he nodded at Colin in acknowledgement of the uniform. Colin nodded back, not sure whether to be annoyed or grateful for the interruption.
“Everything’s fine,” Nat said smoothly. If her smile looked forced, Colin didn’t think the guard noticed. “We’re just here to run some tests.” She stepped inside the building, moving briskly.
Colin followed more slowly. Maybe it was a reaction to almost being dead, but he felt close to battered by the intensity of the emotions flowing through him. Joy, relief, grief, regret on high-speed cycle.
Feeling so emotional was damn exhausting, he thought. He hoped he’d get over it soon.Chapter Three
Natalya rubbed her forehead, then pinched the bridge of her nose. It was late, she was tired, could she be misreading? Could she have done something wrong?
“Aren’t you done yet?” Colin’s call from inside her scanner was louder than it needed to be. She’d told him she could hear him if he whispered. His volume probably indicated his mood: she’d had him in the machine for almost forty-five minutes, longer than any typical scan.
But then this wasn’t typical. She pressed her speaker button and said flatly, “No.”
She picked up the test stick again. It was idiot-proof. She couldn’t have done anything wrong there. Drip some blood on the piece of plastic, wait fifteen minutes, look for a line. The line said, clear as day, that Colin had suffered a heart attack.
She looked back at her screen and began rapid cycling through images. Doctors, typically, neither gave the blood tests nor ran the scanner. Technicians did both those jobs, leaving doctors more time to treat patients. But when Natalya had returned to Tassamara, she’d retreated to a lab and research with relief. It wasn’t that she didn’t like working with people. She did. But medicine and foresight made for an uneasy combination.
She closed her fingers around the test stick, closing her eyes for good measure. She didn’t often try to induce her foresight; it came on its own, unwanted, ill-timed. But now, when she did want to know what the future would bring, she saw exactly nothing.
She opened both fingers and eyes, letting the plastic stick drop to her desk with a slight clatter. Reflexively she glanced over her shoulder at the tiny figure curled up on a nest of cushions on the floor behind her, but the girl hadn’t stirred at the noise, any more than the sound of Natalya’s voice had moved her. She’d been out cold since she’d fallen asleep in the car, her exhaustion overruling her hunger. Natalya hadn’t wanted to leave her alone in a more comfortable room, so she’d grabbed some over-sized pillows from the couch in an upstairs reception room on their way down to the scanner.
Natalya turned her gaze back to her computer screen. Colin’s heart was perfect. Her hands flew over her keyboard, increasing the magnification of the images by two hundred percent, then three, then four. She stared at the screen, searching for evidence of microinfarcts, subtle tissue damage, but there was none. His arteries were lovely. His entire cardiovascular system looked stellar. If she’d been reviewing these images for a physical, she would have happily signed off on any activity.
“Come on, Nat. You’ve gotta be done by now.” Colin’s tone this time was closer to a mumble, a protest he didn’t expect her to hear.
Natalya rested her forehead on her hand for a second or two, trying to think. With a long exhale, she stood. She’d run the troponin test again.
She pushed the button to slide the table out of the scanner. Standing, she crossed to the door between the two rooms, and as Colin sat up, told him, “I need to take more blood.”
His sigh of relief at being out of the machine turned into a sigh of exasperation. “Seriously?”
“If you were in Gainesville or any reputable hospital, they’d be checking the enzyme counts in your blood every hour. Don’t be giving me a hard time about this.” With one last glance at the sleeping child—still motionless—she gestured for Colin to follow her and headed to the small exam room down the hallway. GD was a research facility, not a clinic, but she routinely checked her subjects’ basic vital signs, including blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature, before proceeding with their imaging.
Colin didn’t complain, but as she slid the hypodermic needle under his skin, he grimaced. “I think you’re turning into a vampire.”
“Overgrown mosquitoes. Not a chance,” she responded automatically, as she watched the syringe fill with red. Pulling it out, she pressed the cotton ball she had ready onto his skin and slid her hand up his forearm, gently forcing him to close his arm around the insertion point. And then her eyes met his.
His were hot, almost smoky. She could see the thought, the memory, as clearly as if her gift were telepathy. His old apartment. The television on. Him trying to convince her to watch. Her huffing in disgust. Vampire shows. Pfft. And then… how many times had five minutes of television turned into heated kissing on the couch, his hand sliding up her shirt, her hand sliding down his?
Her lips parted, the heat rushing into her cheeks, flooding the rest of her. She dropped his arm as if it burned, turning away and fumbling with the vial of blood.
Without a word, she marched off into the adjacent storeroom.
He followed her. He was bare-chested, only half-dressed so she could scan his heart without interference from his shirt. She’d look like an idiot if she told him to put some clothes on, but she was much too aware of his presence behind her as she set the vial of blood down on the counter.
She opened the industrial-size refrigerator. Her eyes skimmed down the full boxes to the one she’d located earlier and she grabbed it and slid another test pouch out.
“Why do you guys have all this stuff?” The question was casual, but she could hear the tension underneath it.
How many years had it been since the two of them were alone together?
Natalya frowned down at the test instructions, trying to focus on the present, not the past. What had he asked? Oh, right. The over-stocked refrigerator.
“Zane. And Grace,” she added, to be scrupulously fair. Really, Grace should have known what she was doing. She scanned the instructions, looking for any place where she might have gone wrong before. She was no expert but they seemed perfectly straightforward. Drip whole blood on the test unit, wait fifteen minutes, check the line.
“Not really an answer,” Colin murmured.
She glanced at him, surprised, and then chuckled. It felt like a complete answer to her, but then she’d been working with her siblings for the past few years. “Grace didn’t have time to do her usual emergency preparedness planning this year. So she told Zane to take care of it.”
Natalya ripped open the pouch, taking out the test stick. “She didn’t give him a budget. Instead of working his way down her checklist and updating our water and canned food supplies, which I’m sure is what Grace intended, Zane sent out an email to everyone in the company, asking what they thought we’d need in the event of the zombie apocalypse and promising a prize to the person who sent the most complete answer, quality of the prize to be determined by the quality of the answers.” Bending over the test, she carefully dripped blood into the test well, before looking at the clock on the wall to check the time. Almost one.
“And?” Colin prompted.
She yawned, covering her mouth with her hand. “You know how people work here. The answers were in-depth. Thorough. A little crazy. We probably lost a solid couple of day’s work from every researcher on staff.”
“You’re kidding. How much detail is possible?”
“One person wrote a novel,” she told him. “I read it. It wasn’t half-bad.” She’d actually enjoyed the story of how Tassamara survived and thrived during the zombie apocalypse, although she had serious reservations about whether Max’s actions were at all plausible.
“What?” Colin’s laugh held disbelief.
“No, I’m not kidding. People got—well, they know Zane. Anyway, after he received all the answers, he had an admin compile the results, and order anything at least three people mentioned. We’ve got more than three doctors on staff, so—” She waved at the refrigerator. “In the event of an emergency, we’re stocked.”
“Don’t you mean in the event of the zombie apocalypse?”
“Not gonna happen,” she told him wryly. “Our next hurricane, however, is inevitable.” The words didn’t inspire foreknowledge and she frowned. But she’d seen it before: the tree branches, Millard Street, the window of the bistro shattering. With a shake of her head, she added, “As are our next tornadoes.”
“What did you see?”
Natalya turned away and picked up the plastic stick. “Nothing.”
She glanced at him. “Nothing.”
“I’m the sheriff. My job is to keep the town safe. If you know something that could help me do that, I want to know what it is.”
Natalya stared down at the test stick in her hands, barely seeing it. “I don’t tell people what I know about the future anymore. It serves no purpose.”
It dragged on, became pronounced. Natalya could hear the sound of the clock ticking on the wall, her own breath, even the tiny hum of the overhead light.
And then they both spoke at once.
“It isn’t because of you, because of what happened with us.”
“You’re not responsible for what you see.”
Natalya’s hand shook and she steadied it, consciously inhaling. Straight to the heart. Damn it. And then they both spoke, again talking over one another.
“I know that,” Natalya said.
“I’d be sorry if it was.”
Colin half-laughed and Natalya started to set the test back down on the counter, then blinked at it and paused. “Damn.”
“You go first,” Colin offered.
Natalya shook her head. “Not that.” She offered him the plastic stick. “Pink line. You have excess troponin in your blood. It’s an indicator of heart damage.”
“Ah.” Colin took the stick and looked at the line, his mouth twisting. “How bad is it?”
“It’s not.” She crumpled up the waste from the test kit and dropped it into the nearby trash can, then took the vial with his remaining blood and walked back toward the scanner monitoring room.
“What does that mean?” He followed her, of course.
“It means I’m a radiologist, not a cardiologist, and I don’t know what I’m doing.” She set the vial of blood down on her desk next to the first one and stared at her computer screen for a moment, not really seeing it. She tried to think, tried to remember any facts that could make sense of the contradictory data, but her brain kept returning to the moment when she rounded the back of his car and reality began deviating from her foreknowledge. Why was he alive? Why wasn’t he dead?
“Come on, Nat, that scan took forever. You must have lots of pretty pictures of my heart by now.”
“And a very pretty heart it is,” Nat answered, half-sarcastic, half-serious, before grabbing a pen and reaching for the sheet of labels she’d gotten out earlier. As she filled out the sticker with his name, the date, and the time she’d drawn the blood, she added, “But there’s nothing wrong with it.”
“So did I have a heart attack or didn’t I?”
“Your troponin levels say yes. But your heart shows no evidence of damage, which means no.” She set the pen down, and then placed the label neatly on the vial.
“Join the crowd,” she muttered. She looked in his direction, trying not to notice his physicality. She’d gained at least fifteen pounds, probably closer to twenty, in the past decade, but he’d added muscle. The definition in his upper arms and chest was noticeable. And regrettably hot. “You weren’t exercising strenuously a couple of hours ago, were you?”
Colin grinned at her. “Not unless eating an extra slice of cake counts. All that chewing, you know.”
She didn’t smile back. “Elevated troponin levels indicate damage to muscle, usually cardiac. But your heart is fine.”
“That sounds like good news.”
“I suppose.” She pressed her lips together. “If you went to a hospital, they probably wouldn’t even keep you overnight for observation. Troponin tests can be wrong, but the scan should be conclusive.”
“So I’m going to live?” All humor had disappeared from Colin’s face. His grey eyes were intent on hers, his strong mouth set in an even line.
Natalya spread her hands. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Come on, Nat, you can do better than that. Tell me my future.” She could see he was making an effort to sound casual, but his eyes were anything but.
“I don’t do that anymore, remember?”
“Exigent circumstances,” he responded. “When am I going to die?”
She licked her lips, waiting. But his question didn’t spur anything in her mind, no flood of images, no quick fleeting glimpse of an unknown place that still seemed familiar. She shook her head in his direction.
“Will I die tomorrow?” he persisted. “This week? Next week?” He stepped closer to her until he was so close she could almost feel the warmth radiating from his skin and she had to tilt her head up to look into his face.
She shrugged. “No idea. I don’t see it.” He was in her space. She should step away from him or at least order him to back off, but she didn’t, torn by her own mind’s mixed messages. She didn’t want him to affect her. She didn’t want to show him he affected her. But part of her—maybe it was the girl who had taken his presence in her life for granted, believed they were for always—simply wanted to lean into him and exult for a moment that he was still living, still breathing.
A smile broke over his face, curving his lips, lifting his cheeks, crinkling his eyes. And then his hands were on her, tugging her close. Her mouth opened to protest, but he was kissing her before she could form the words.
His kiss earlier had been questioning, searching, but this kiss demanded and took. She kissed him back. It was impossible not to. Her eyes closed and she lost herself in the moment; familiar, yet different, the long-suppressed craving bursting into life, heat rushing through her and pooling in her core. Their lips parted and returned, tongues tangling, little gasping breaths escaping, until Colin began stroking his way along the line of Natalya’s cheek, lips teasing and nibbling.
She let her head fall back, giving him better access to her sensitive neck and ears. He knew just how to kiss her, just what she liked. That hadn’t changed.
He caught the lobe of her ear with gentle teeth. “Boy or girl?” he whispered.
She froze. The words ricocheted in her mind like bullets hitting the memories of the times he’d asked the same question, teasing, silly, a joke. Lying by the lake at sixteen, in their first shared bed at twenty, and then the last time, the very last time, the day before he told her good-bye.
She pushed herself off him, shoving with enough force that he took a couple of steps backward, and she reeled away and into the edge of her desk, almost onto her computer. The heat of passion was gone, lost in a wave of such searing anger that her tensed muscles quivered with it.
Fists clenched against the urge to hit him, to hurt him like he’d hurt her, she grated out the answer. “We are never having children. Because we are not a couple and never will be again.”
He put a hand on his chest. Maybe he was touching where she’d shoved him, maybe he was covering his heart. She didn’t know and she didn’t care. “Nat.”
She glared at him.
“I’m not going to die.”
“Apparently not. Congratulations.” She turned away, feeling tears well up in her eyes and not wanting him to see them. She’d told herself years ago that it was stupid to keep hating him. That she needed to let go. Maybe not forgive, maybe not forget, but move on with her life. But she’d always known this night was coming. She’d been waiting for it, even if it hadn’t ended the way she’d expected.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, making a conscious effort to relax her muscles and clear her mind.
“I’m not dying,” Colin repeated.
She turned back to him, in control again. “No, you’re not.” She managed a tight smile. “But that doesn’t change the past. It doesn’t change the fact that when you thought you would, when you thought you only had a little while to live, you chose not to spend that time with me.”
He opened his mouth as if to protest, but she raised a hand and snapped, her tone fast and furious. “Don’t. Don’t even start. I don’t want to hear what you have to say. I don’t care what you have to say. I’m glad you’re alive but that doesn’t mean anything between us changes.”
He ran a hand through his hair, “Everything changes, Nat.”
“Not us. We don’t change. You dumped me. And I don’t forgive you.”
In the other room, a phone rang. His. It rested with the other items from his pockets on a small table next to the scanner. He glanced in that direction automatically, then looked back at her and started. “Nat—”
“You should get that,” she interrupted him, voice cold, expression colder. “It’s probably about the girl. Maybe they’ve found her parents or know who she is.”
He didn’t move.
A rustle behind her told Natalya the girl was sitting up. She tried to school her expression, to not let the anger seething under her surface show, but her hands were trembling as she turned toward the child, taking the two steps that put her next to the pile of cushions. She crouched down. “Hey, sleepyhead.”
The girl looked fearful, eyes wide.
“Don’t worry.” Natalya reached out and put a gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder. “You fell asleep in the car and we carried you down to my office. But you don’t need to be afraid. We’ll get you home.”
The phone was still ringing. With a muffled sound falling somewhere between a sigh of resignation and a growl of frustration, Colin went to answer it.
The child still looked scared and Natalya let her hand drop to her side. Poor kid. Natalya’s anger faded, lost in guilt and sympathy. Bad enough to be lost and alone without waking up to strange adults screaming. “Did I wake you up by yelling at him? I’m sorry.”
The girl blinked, but the stiffness in her body didn’t ease.
“I’ve known him for a long time, since I was a little girl. Littler than you.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed slightly, a tiny movement, but her skepticism was plain.
Natalya had to smile. “Really. He was a little boy then, of course.”
The girl’s head tipped back, away from Natalya. She looked toward the door where Colin had disappeared and then back at Natalya.
“I might get mad at him sometimes, but he’s a good guy. You don’t need to be afraid of him. Or of me,” Natalya said, still trying to reassure her.
The wariness remained, but the look of fear was gone. For a moment, Natalya debated questioning her—asking again for her name and the story of how she’d come to be lost in the forest—but she suspected from the girl’s silence, the tension in her shoulders and the closed-off way she was holding her arms tight to her sides that she’d be no more helpful than she’d been earlier.
From the other room, she could hear the rumble of Colin’s voice, but not what he was saying until he appeared in the doorway, phone in hand. “No luck, I’m afraid.”
“No reports of a missing child. There’s a ranger out looking for accident sites, but even knowing where she wound up, there’s a lot of ground to cover. We’ll get a real search started at first light.” Colin glanced at his watch.
“What now?” Natalya asked.
“The DCF call.” He grimaced. “I’ll start with the hotline. It’s probably going to take a while, though. Working my way through a state bureaucracy on Christmas Day won’t be easy.”
“You might be surprised,” Natalya answered. “Our local agency is very well-run.”
She didn’t say any more, but her mother had supported Florida’s shift to private, community-based foster care. When Natalya moved back to Tassamara, she’d taken over her mother’s former seat on the board of directors at the local agency, so she knew—and admired—the people who ran the non-profit. They had hard jobs, but they did them well.
“I’ll find out.” Colin turned away, punching the number into his phone without hesitation.
Natalya looked back at the girl. “Let’s get you cleaned up and put some band-aids on those blisters,” she suggested.
The girl didn’t argue, so Natalya stood. She held out a hand but the girl ignored it as she scrambled to her feet. Without comment, Natalya led the way to the exam room.
The blisters were bad and must have hurt, but Natalya saw no signs of infection. Natalya sprayed them with a topical numbing agent before cleaning them but even so, the girl was wincing, feet twitching away from Natalya’s fingers, before she was done. She still didn’t make a sound.
“Sorry about that.” Natalya dropped the used antiseptic wipes into the trash can. She pulled open the cupboard door and looked at the bandage options. A basic adhesive would be fine, but she wished she had a fun choice, instead of the plain brown. Zane’s zombie planning apparently hadn’t taken into account the need to cheer people up. “All of our band-aids are the boring kind, I’m afraid. I wish we had fun ones for you.”
She turned back to the girl and paused. Something had drawn a smile from her, a faint one, curling around her lips like a wisp of sunshine on a grey day. Natalya smiled back at her as she sat down and began applying the bandages.
“No. That’s not acceptable.” Colin stepped into the exam room and dropped his phone to his side. “How old do you think she is?”
Natalya raised a questioning eyebrow, before looking back at the girl. If she ran a scan, she could probably pinpoint her age within a year from the growth plates on her bones, but without more information, she’d be guessing. Still, children were sometimes predictable with how they behaved when their ages were mentioned. Deliberately, she guessed low. “Five, I’d say.”
The girl’s eyes widened and her lower lip slid out.
“No?” Natalya asked. “Six? Seven?”
At the last number, the girl’s chin jerked down in a tiny nod.
“She’s seven years old,” Colin said into the phone. “An emergency shelter with teenagers is not appropriate.”
Natalya frowned and pushed her sliding chair away from the girl, turning so she could see Colin more easily.
“I understand it’s a holiday. And the middle of the night. What else have you got?” Colin listened for a moment. “That’s almost worse. Refusing to speak doesn’t mean she’s emotionally disturbed. She’s been through a traumatic experience. She’ll talk when she’s ready.” He fell silent again, but as the person on the other end of the line continued to speak, he began shaking his head as if rejecting her words.
“Who is it?” Natalya mouthed.
He covered the mouthpiece with one hand and whispered, “Carla something. Didn’t catch it. Community Family Services.”
Standing, Natalya gestured for Colin to hand her the phone. She’d take care of this. He scowled but she wiggled her fingers at him, demand clear, and he passed the phone to her.
“Carla? Natalya Latimer here.”
“Dr. Latimer! The sheriff didn’t mention you.” The woman sounded surprised, her tone tense.
“We must have woken you up,” Natalya said, making her tone sympathetic. “And on Christmas. How did you get stuck with this shift? You’ve been with the agency what, four, five years, now? Shouldn’t one of the new girls be working the holiday?”
“It’ll be six in March,” Carla answered, sounding more relaxed. “And I’ll tell ya, if I’d known what today was gonna be like, I sure wouldn’t have signed up for this shift.”
“A home visit that didn’t go well and two emergency placements. Plus all the usual juggling around the holidays. The Ruiz’s needed to visit out-of-state family—Marco’s mother is ill—and the Thompsons have visitors.”
“What about Mrs. Watson? Is she available?”
“She’s got a toddler and a baby, so she’s at capacity.”
“Who else do you have?” Natalya asked.
As Carla rattled down a list of names and reasons why each one wouldn’t work, Natalya turned some of her attention back to the exam room. Colin had picked up his shirt and was shrugging into it, but his eyes were on her.
“It sounds as if we need a new recruitment drive,” Natalya said, interrupting Carla.”
“This isn’t typical, it’s just—” the woman started.
“I’ll make sure it gets on the agenda for the next board meeting.” Natalya spoke over her. “Meanwhile, though, what do we do for the moment? I’ve got a little girl here who needs a bed to sleep in.”
“I’ve got space free at the juvenile facility and Hart House, but as I was telling the sheriff, that’s it. That’s all I’ve got. I can start calling out of county, but I can’t tell you how long it’ll take.”
“Hmm.” Natalya considered the options. Her role on the board was mostly symbolic, based on General Directions and the Latimer family being the largest financial contributors to the agency. She had no experience navigating the system.
“What are you doing there, anyway?” Carla asked. “Why did the sheriff call you?”
“Oh, just a little emergency first aid,” Natalya answered.
“Is she hurt?”
“Not seriously, no.”
“A hospital might be an option, though. I realize they won’t want to keep her, but if there was a bed on the pediatrics floor, maybe we could justify an overnight observation.”
“What about an emergency placement?” Natalya asked slowly. “For the same reason?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not licensed, but I took the training class last year as part of the development planning. And I’ve got a guest bed.”
“You’d let her stay with you?”
“For the night,” Natalya clarified hastily. “To keep her under medical supervision. Just in case.”
“That would work,” Carla said, sounding eager. “Up to twenty-four hours. And beyond that, thirty days if a judge signs off.”
It couldn’t take a month to find the girl’s parents. Surely they’d find them tomorrow. Maybe even by morning if the rangers got lucky.
Without even thinking about it, Natalya concentrated, expecting to see what would happen. Would it be a phone call, reporting the news? Or would someone show up at her door? Would they be at the sheriff's office? But nothing came to her.
She tried to summon a recent memory and it was easy: standing on the porch of her childhood home, the lights sparkling, the poinsettias red against the white porch, her father’s deep voice telling her to drive safely, Grace shoving food into her hands. But when she thought of the future, her mind was blank. Empty.
A paranoid person might think the emptiness meant she had no future.
Good thing she wasn’t paranoid.Chapter Four
“Hannah.” Natalya’s eyes flickered open.
“Emily.” She lay still, motionless for the second or two it took to identify her location.
“Jane.” Her own bed, with its soft cotton sheets and thin, lightweight quilt.
“Anne?” Her own room, cream walls, moss-green trim, a careful selection of her own colorful artwork hanging within easy eyesight. But something wasn’t right.
“Am I totally off-track here?”
The voice was part of it. She recognized it, of course. Grace, her tone one of mild complaint. But what was she doing here? As Natalya sat up, she waited for her foresight to kick into action, for her brain to preview the next few minutes for her and answer her question, but her mind refused to cooperate, staying stubbornly blank.
“Should I be trying names like Sunshine? Harmony? Dharma? Cosmic Bliss?”
The light. That was what else was wrong. She’d overslept. Morning sun scattered its rays along the hardwood floor as she threw off the quilt, fumbling for a robe, and hurried into the short hallway leading to the adjacent kitchen.
Grace was sitting at her table, watching the little girl across from her eat. “More?” Grace offered, reaching for the cereal box.
Natalya tried in vain to recall what would happen next. Nothing. “What are you doing here, Grace?”
“I was going to make you come shopping with me,” Grace answered, pouring more granola into the girl’s bowl. “But I got distracted by the burglar in your kitchen.”
“She’s not a burglar.” Nat crossed to the sink and pressed the On button on her coffee maker. The low water light blinked at her, so she grabbed the sprayer from the kitchen sink to refill the reservoir.
“Depends if you want cereal for breakfast, I guess. That’s the end of your granola.” The girl’s spoon clattered against her bowl as she dropped it.
“No, no,” Grace said hastily. “I was just kidding. I’m the one who fed you, so that makes me the burglar.” She nodded toward the bowl. “Go ahead, eat. Nat’ll find something else.”
“There’s plenty of food.” Natalya turned to reassure the girl, noticing too late that she was letting water splash out of the coffeemaker. Oops. With the coffee started, she grabbed for a dishtowel and wiped up the water on the counter.
“Neighbor have a childcare emergency?” Grace asked as the girl started spooning cereal into her mouth, neatly but too quickly, her eyes down.
Cleaned up and wearing a brightly-colored t-shirt Natalya had given her to sleep in, she could maybe pass for a neighbor kid—if, that is, Natalya had any really crappy neighbors whose kids were half-starved, bruised and scraped, wary and silent, which she did not.
“Not exactly, no.” Natalya leaned against the sink, waiting for the machine to finish brewing.
“So where’d you get her?”
“I, um, found her.” Natalya ran her hands through her hair and yawned. She was going to have to tell Grace the whole story, she realized. Beginning to end. Finding Colin on the road. Colin not dying. The premonition. The past. Her foresight going wrong. Her foresight being gone.
“You found her? Like how? Like you’d find a stray kitten?” Laughter underlay the surprise in Grace’s tone.
“Something like that, yeah.”
“Have you called the police?”
“No.” Hell. Natalya wasn’t ready to cope with Grace being efficient. She needed caffeine. She reached for the coffeepot.
“Why not?” Grace demanded.
“I didn’t need to. I mean I—” Coffee pot in one hand, Natalya turned, stepped, and slipped in a puddle of water on the floor. The coffee pot went flying.
Grace almost caught it.
A yelp from Grace as the glass burned her hands and she tried to juggle the coffee pot, a crash-smash as it hit the floor, a squeak of dismay from the child, a scrape as she pushed her chair away from the table and fled, and instant, profuse, apologies from Natalya.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so—sink!” Natalya finished with the order, grabbing her sister and tugging her over to the kitchen faucet.
Grace stared at the coffee staining the shirt, the brown liquid rapidly soaking into the sleeves. “Ouch?”
“Take it off,” Natalya ordered, turning the handle and shoving Grace’s arms under the cool water.
“I can’t take my shirt off when you’re pushing me around.” Grace protested automatically, before shoving both arms together and lifting them up so the water trailed down and dripped off her elbows. “What the hell, Nat? How did you not know that was coming?”
Natalya closed her eyes, feeling sickness wash through her. She’d burned her sister. But she never had accidents. Never. Her foresight should have kicked in the moment she heard Grace’s voice. She should have known what was coming before she even got out of bed.
“Don’t worry about the shirt,” she corrected herself. Lavender oil. Where was it? Her bathroom, probably, from the last time she’d used it in the tub as a relaxing aromatherapy. “Wait here. Keep your arms under the water.”
She hurried away. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Her friend Tim’s medical school litany swam through her head, ‘Fear is the mind killer. Let it go. Focus on the now.’ But it didn’t work.
Grace was burned. It was Natalya’s fault. And her foresight, her vision, the gift that had so often felt more like a curse, was gone. Nausea churned in her stomach and her pulse thudded in her ears.
With the lavender oil clutched in her palm so tightly her nails dug into her skin, she returned to the kitchen. “Okay, I’ve got it.”
But she wasn’t the first one back. The little girl stood next to Grace, on tiptoe, peering over the edge of the sink, her hands holding Grace’s arm while the water sluiced down. The girl met Natalya’s eyes, then soundlessly, she dropped Grace’s arm and darted toward the archway leading to the front room.
“Wait,” Grace said. “What was that? How did you, what did you, come back!”
The moment felt familiar. The little girl had run again, just like last night. But why? Natalya listened but there was no sound of the front door being pulled open, so with a worried frown, she turned her attention to her sister. “Take off your shirt.”
Grace shook her head, but not in refusal. Her hands started working the buttons as she said, “I think I’m fine. Really. It doesn’t hurt.”
Natalya’s mouth twisted. Burns could be deceptive and a lack of pain wasn’t always a good sign. But as Grace dropped her soaking shirt into the sink and held out her arms, Natalya’s frown deepened.
Grace’s arms were pink. Pink like skin run under cold water.
“Uh…” Natalya started, holding the lavender oil up. “Where does it hurt?”
Grace shrugged. “I told you. It doesn’t.”
Natalya set the oil down on the counter and took Grace’s left forearm into her hands. She turned it this way and that, holding it up to the light from the kitchen window. No red, no blisters, definitely no dead white skin. She dropped it and reached for Grace’s other arm. Same thing. With no vestige of embarrassment, she scrutinized Grace’s chest and stomach. Pink healthy skin, no evidence of a burn. Not even a mild first degree burn.
“Nice bra,” she said absently, trying to visualize the accident in her head. She’d spilled the coffee on Grace. The shirt proved it. The pot was straight from the burner so as hot as coffee ever got, certainly hot enough to burn skin. And yet—Grace was fine.
“Freya Deco,” responded Grace promptly. “Expensive, but worth every penny.”
Natalya nodded. She’d have to give them a try. And then she waved a hand back toward her bedroom. “Go grab a clean shirt,” she ordered. “You’re not burned.”
Grace reached for the dishtowel hanging off the oven and carefully patted her arms dry. “Isn’t that…”
“Unexpected?” Natalya provided the word for her. “Yeah.”
“Weird was what I was going for,” Grace said. She held the dishtowel out to Natalya and then headed back to Natalya’s bedroom to rummage through her sister’s closet.
The kitchen smelled of burnt coffee from the drops splashing onto the warming plate and overflowing along the counter. The tiled floor was a mess of brown liquid and broken glass. The little girl had run off somewhere, hopefully not outside. And Natalya still didn’t have any caffeine in her system.
With a sigh, she grabbed a mug and slid it under the dripping coffee, and then started to clean up. As she crouched, carefully picking up pieces of glass from the floor, she noticed a slight stinging on her bare leg, above her knee. She brushed at the red spot. It was a very minor, very small burn. First degree, no worse than a drop of sunburn. She must have been hit by a backsplash of coffee.
But if the heat was enough to burn her, then how had Grace escaped?
“All right, that was really weird.” Grace came back into the kitchen, flipping her blonde hair out from under the collar of a turquoise shirt.
“I don’t understand why you’re not burned,” Natalya admitted, rocking back on her heels.
“I don’t understand why you spilled coffee on me,” Grace said, accusation in her voice. “What’s up with that?”
“That, too.” Natalya let her hair fall across her face, ignoring the way the dark straight strands dropped into the coffee puddle on the floor.
“Nat?” Grace sounded worried. “Are you okay?”
“It’s a long story.” Natalya stood, pieces of glass cradled in her hand and then paused. She was standing barefoot among broken glass. And she didn’t know whether she would cut herself. Damn it. She didn’t like this. “I’ll tell you the whole thing after I get some shoes on, finish cleaning up this mess, and, please God, have a cup of coffee.”
Grace chuckled. “All right, I’ll give you a hand.”
Natalya dumped the glass into the trash can and navigated the floor, avoiding coffee and glass, as Grace grabbed a mass of paper towels. Heading for the front door, where she typically left her shoes, she added a task to her list: check on the little girl.
Her cottage wasn’t very big. There weren’t too many places a child could hide. But Natalya didn’t see her in the living room as she crossed to the front door and grabbed her sandals. Slipping her feet into the flat-soled slides, she let her eyes skim over the comfortable, overstuffed furniture and under the tables, before stepping back to the door by the front bedroom where the child had slept.
Most of the room was her studio, a paint-splattered tarp spread across the floor, canvasses piled against the walls. A seldom-used bed was shoved against one wall, sheets neatly pulled up, comforter folded at the foot of the bed. And there the girl was, crouched in the corner next to a wooden table holding paints and brushes, linseed oil and sketchbooks. Her eyes were closed, her thin arms wrapped around her knees, her head bent.
“It’s okay.” Natalya kept her voice gentle and didn’t move from her spot in the doorway. “Grace is fine and we’re cleaning up the mess. You didn’t step on any glass, did you?”
The girl lifted her head. On her pale face, the shadows under her blue eyes looked almost like bruises. Her fear was palpable.
There is more troubling this child than a day or two lost in the woods, Natalya realized with a jolt. “Can you tell me why you’re afraid?” she asked.
The girl didn’t answer. Her stare was so blank she might not even have understood the question.
Natalya sat down where she stood, crossing her legs and propping her elbow on her thigh, her face on her fist, as if she planned to stay there awhile.
She wasn’t a trained therapist. The child needed to talk to a forensic psychologist, someone with experience in asking the right questions, providing the right reassurances. But Natalya couldn’t leave her hiding in a corner.
She thought back to the foster parent training she’d taken, but she’d had no intention of becoming a foster parent and much of it had to do with the rules and regulations and procedures. Still, help the child feel safe—that was pretty basic.
“Grace was trying to guess your name, and you weren’t answering,” she said slowly. “But I need something to call you. Is it okay if I give you a name? Just for now?”
No response. Natalya hadn’t really expected one.
“Kenzi,” Natalya said. Now where the hell had that come from? Oh, right. Television. “Can I call you Kenzi?”
The girl's eyes opened wide and then she blinked twice in rapid succession.
Natalya decided to take that as a yes. Carefully, picking her words with caution, she continued, “Okay, Kenzi, here’s the deal. I’m a doctor. That means sometimes I have to hurt people, like when I cleaned up your feet last night and it stung a little.”
She waited but got no response, so she went on. “But doctors swear an oath.” She paused, suddenly doubtful, as she asked, “Do you know what that is?”
Kenzi didn’t move but something about her air of tension looked uncertain to Natalya, so she explained. “It’s a promise. A really serious, really important promise. The most important promise a doctor makes is to do no harm. Do you understand what that means?”
Natalya hoped for a nod, at least one of the tiny inclinations the girl had managed the previous evening, but Kenzi just looked at her, unblinking.
Natalya sat up straighter, resting her hands on her knees, and wished she knew what she was doing. “It means I will do my best never to hurt you on purpose. If you do something wrong, I won’t hurt you. If you do something bad, I won’t hurt you. If you make me really, really mad—which is pretty hard to do, I don’t get angry easily—but if you do, I might yell a little, but I won’t hurt you. You’re safe here. I don’t know why you’re scared or what you’re scared of, but I promise, you you’re safe with me and safe here in my house.”
She waited. Two seconds, five seconds, ten seconds, and then Kenzi took a deep breath and let it out on a shaky exhale, the kind that said tears might be close to the surface.
Good enough. Natalya didn’t know whether she should follow up and try to get the girl to talk or leave her in peace. Best bet, though, would be to leave the talking to the professionals.
Gently, Natalya said, “You can stay where you are if you want or you can come back and finish your granola.” She pushed herself up, off the floor, tugging her robe back around her. “Or maybe have something else to eat, some fruit? Or eggs if you like eggs?”
Kenzi stayed motionless in the corner, so Natalya added, “All right, I’m going to get my breakfast. You come whenever you’re ready.”
As she headed back to the kitchen, she frowned with worry. She didn’t feel qualified to analyze a troubled child. But why was Kenzi so frightened? Grace hadn’t scared her. She’d been eating breakfast quite peacefully. Could it have been the crash of the glass? But why had she come back and then run away again?
Grace was almost finished cleaning the floor, wiping a damp paper towel across it in wide swathes. “Everything okay?”
Natalya grabbed her mug of coffee and took a cautious sip, then a larger swallow. “I wish I knew.”
Grace tossed the towel into the trash and sat down at the table. “Talk,” she ordered. “What’s going on?”
Kenzi’s bowl was in front of the chair Natalya usually sat in, so with a sigh, Natalya slipped into the corner seat, back to the window. “Last night was the night I found Colin.”
Grace looked blank for a moment and then understanding and immediate sympathy darkened her eyes. She started to rise, reaching out to her sister, saying, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry—”
Natalya waved her off before Grace could finish. “No, no, it didn’t—he didn’t—it went wrong. Or right. Or—I don’t know. I’m so confused.”
Grace sank back down in her seat. “You saved him?”
“No.” Natalya shook her head. She stared down at the black surface of her coffee. “No,” she repeated more quietly.
“Well, Nat, damn it, you should have called. You shouldn’t have had to go through that alone.” Grace was on her feet again. She reached across the table to put a hand on Natalya’s shoulder. “We would all have come, you know that. Did you let Lucas know? He’ll want to fly back from North Carolina today.”
“No, no,” Natalya protested again, putting her hand up and over her sister’s. “I’m sorry. I’m not explaining this right. Colin’s fine. He’s alive and well and based on the scan I did, in perfect health. Likely to live for years.”
Grace put her hands on her hips. “Okay, you’re not making any sense at all,” she said bluntly. “Was last night the night Colin died or wasn’t it?”
“Sit.” Natalya waved at Grace’s chair. “Let me tell it my way.”
Obediently, Grace took her seat as Natalya gathered her thoughts. Grace knew about her premonition, of course. The whole family did and probably half the town. Natalya and Colin’s break-up had been the hot topic of gossip in Tassamara for a solid six months, only diminishing with Natalya’s unexpected departure for medical school. So she started with the drive. “It was exactly like I’d seen it.”
She told Grace almost the whole story, skipping only a few details. Like that heated kiss by the side of the road. The rush of desire that filled her in the exam room. The question he’d asked and her angry response. The unimportant stuff.
“Why do I have the feeling you’re not telling me everything?” Grace mused when she’d almost finished.
Natalya could feel a prickle of heat along her cheekbones but she ignored the question. “And my vision is gone.”
“The vision of Colin?” Grace asked, puzzled.
“No, I mean my foresight. It’s gone.”
“Gone, how? Gone like you can’t see anything about Colin any more or gone like—”
“Like I’m blind,” Natalya interrupted her.
“Future blind.” Grace seemed to be turning the idea over in her head and not liking it.
“Actually, it feels more like I’d imagine amnesia feels. There are things I should know, things I used to know, that are just… gone. And I keep reaching for them. Trying to remember. But there’s nothing there.”
“That sounds unpleasant.” Grace’s eyes were worried, her brows drawn down.
“It’s different, anyway.” Natalya forced a chuckle. How many times in her life had she asked for just this? Knowing the future had never felt like a gift to her. She’d become practiced at not thinking about it, at living in the present moment and appreciating where she was while accepting that the future was not hers to control. She hadn’t realized how much she took her foreknowledge for granted. Serenity, it turned out, came easier when you knew exactly how your day would flow.
“So you don’t know anything about the little girl?”
Natalya glanced at the clock on her microwave. Almost ten. “Colin said they’d start a real search at daylight. They’re trying to track her path back through the forest, and the rangers are driving all the back roads, looking for an accident.”
“It’s a big forest.”
“Yeah, but she’s a little girl. She couldn’t have gone too far.”
“And she won’t talk.” Grace’s voice was thoughtful. “Did you see if she could write? What does she do with a pen and paper?”
Natalya felt stupid.
“It was late,” she said. The excuse sounded weak. But the girl had been sleepy and hungry, had needed her scrapes bandaged, a hot shower, clean clothes—Natalya had been so focused on the priorities of the moment that she hadn’t even thought about other methods of communication. Still, given that they knew the girl could talk and wouldn’t, how likely was it she’d be willing to write?
She gulped down the rest of her coffee and stood. Grace had shoved another mug under the dripping filter. It was half-full, so she switched mugs, and took a sip from the fresh one. “Oh, sorry,” she said, realizing she was being rude. “Do you want coffee?”
“Not the way you make it,” Grace answered.
“Snob,” Natalya retorted mildly. “Lighter roast has more caffeine.”
“And less taste. Stop stalling. Do you want to try this or what?”
Natalya leaned against the sink. They should leave the questions to the psychologist Kenzi would surely see within a few hours. But asking if she’d write her name—how could that hurt?
“All right,” she said. Automatically, without even thinking about it, she tried to look into the future, to see the outcome of this choice. Not knowing felt uncomfortable, like an itch she couldn’t reach to scratch. “If she’s willing.”
Setting her coffee cup down on the counter, she crossed to the living room. “Kenzi? Will you come here, please?”
“Kenzi?” Grace asked from behind her.
Natalya shrugged, watching the door to her studio. “I needed something to call her.”
“Isn’t Bo the lost one?”
“Matter of opinion, I guess.” Natalya looked over her shoulder at her sister with a smile until a shuffle of noise drew her attention back to the front rooms. Kenzi stood in the doorway of the studio, looking at her warily.
Natalya’s smile didn’t change. She tilted her head toward the kitchen to let Kenzi know she wanted her to join them, then turned and went back to the kitchen table. Kenzi would either come or not. The choice was up to her. But it was only a few seconds before the little girl appeared at the door.
“Cool,” Grace said cheerfully. She hopped up and rummaged in the junk drawer by Natalya’s phone, pulling out a pad of paper and a pen. Crossing to the little girl, she set the pad down on the countertop next to her. “Here,” she said, handing her the pen. “Can you write your name for us?”
Kenzi didn’t refuse to take the pen and she wasn’t running, but she didn’t look eager to cooperate, either. Her eyes flickered from one of them to the other as if she were trapped.
“Hmm.” Grace crossed her arms, looking down on Kenzi speculatively.
“Gently, Grace,” Natalya cautioned her sister softly. They had no idea what sort of trauma this child had experienced. She didn’t want to push.
“How about we negotiate?” Grace said to Kenzi.
A flicker of doubt creased Kenzi’s forehead.
“A deal,” Grace said. “We’ll make a deal.”
Kenzi licked her lips. Natalya’s curved up in reluctant appreciation. Grace was CEO of the family company. Trust her to think of problems in terms of business.
“Which do you like better, clothes or toys?” Grace asked.
Kenzi blinked at her, her uncertainty obvious.
“Hang on.” Grace stepped past Kenzi and disappeared into the living room. Kenzi glanced at Natalya and Natalya shrugged as Grace returned, smart phone already in hand, head down. “No, not that one,” Grace muttered. “No, no, ick, no. Ah… okay, that’ll do.” She turned the phone around and showed Kenzi the screen. “What do you think?”
Kenzi’s eyes widened. She looked up at Grace.
“You write your name on this piece of paper,” Grace said, pushing the pad closer to the edge of the counter. “And I’ll buy you that doll. I’ll even pay for overnight shipping so you get it tomorrow.”
Kenzi looked torn. Her fingers tightened on the pen in her hand. But she didn’t make any move to write.
“Tough bargainer, eh?” Grace said. “All right, I’ll also buy you a new dress. Pink. With ruffles. And lace. And glitter.” She left a pause between each new addition to the dress’s description.
“What next, wings?” Natalya murmured.
Both Grace and Kenzi glanced toward her, Kenzi’s eyes wide.
“And wings,” Grace said promptly, before adding with what sounded like regret, “although not ones that would let you fly, that’s a bit beyond me. But I’m sure I could find ones that sparkle.”
Kenzi lifted the pen and set its tip on the paper, but she didn’t write.
“Come on, sweetie.” Grace’s voice was gentle. “We need to know your name to help you get home.”
The little girl’s chin went up. Natalya’s eyes narrowed. And then the girl pulled the pad closer to her and with short, sharp, strokes, wrote a few quick letters.
“Ha,” said Grace, watching her write. “Very funny.”
The little girl’s mouth twitched as if she were trying not to smile. Or was it trying not to cry?
Grace’s expression was unreadable, before she looked back at the girl. “That’s what you want to say?”
The girl nodded.
The girl shook her head.
“All right.” Grace looked down at the paper and her shoulders lifted, part shrug, part chuckle. “I’ll buy you the doll anyway.”
“What did she write?” Natalya asked. She’d already guessed it wasn’t a name, but was it something horrifying? Words an abusive parent might have called a stubborn child? Or something milder but resistant, like ‘none of your business’? Only in fewer letters, because she couldn’t have written a whole sentence.
Grace didn’t answer for a moment as she tapped on her phone. Finished, she reached out and placed a gentle hand on the girl’s blonde hair, before saying calmly, “Welcome to the family.”
“Wait, what?” Natalya stood. “That’s not—she’s not—she’s only here for the night, Grace. I have to bring her to the sheriff’s office this morning.”
Grace laughed. Picking up the pad, she turned and tossed it in Natalya’s direction. As it fluttered down to the kitchen table, Grace said, “You obviously can’t come shopping with me because of your little friend here, but I assume you’ll be needing some girl’s clothes? I’d guess a size six, maybe seven? I can take care of that for you.”
“Hang on, what are you—” Natalya reached for the pad as she started to protest. What was Grace talking about? And then she saw what the girl had written on the pad.
Colin dropped into his office chair, exhaling with relief. Ten minutes alone, that was all he needed. He pulled open his desk drawer and grabbed a candy bar. He should eat a real meal, not sugar, but he didn’t have time. Nat and the girl would be arriving for a handover to the DCF caseworker any minute and he needed a chance to organize his thoughts.
He’d rousted two deputies and a bloodhound out of bed before dawn to trace the girl’s path through the woods. The dog had quickly made it clear that Colin was an idiot. He knew exactly where the girl’s trail ended: at the road where she’d been found. What Colin needed wasn’t a search-and-rescue dog, but the kind of fabled Native American tracker who could follow a broken path through the woods, spotting every indentation or broken leaf. Unfortunately, he didn’t have one.
He and the deputies tramped around for several hours, looking for any evidence of the girl’s passage through the forest, following paths until they disappeared, and then circling around to try again. He’d thought at one point they’d managed to get lost in the pine scrub themselves and wouldn’t that have been embarrassing? The thought of having to call a ranger for help made him cringe. Fortunately, they’d found their way out. But it had been a gigantic waste of time.
Or it would have been if not for the pure pleasure of being out in the forest. The air felt crisper today, colors brighter, smells more intense. Colin had thought it was a weather change, maybe a cold front moving in. But even here, sitting in his barren office, the sensation remained.
As he bit into the chocolate, he found himself admiring the green of the truly ugly office chair on the other side of his desk. How had he never noticed before how closely it matched the olive shades of swamp water? And the coffee that had been sitting on the burner since he’d gotten back here at 4AM smelled nutty and rich and deep, if a little burned.
Life was good. No, life was amazing.
Finishing his candy in two quick bites, he tossed the wrapper into the wastepaper basket and clicked open his pen to start making notes.
Missing person reports? Check. They’d looked at local records, the FBI’s database, and the national NamUS Missing Persons system without finding any cases matching the child’s description. Still, maybe he should have someone start checking neighboring states, just in case. A recent report might not have made it into the national systems yet.
Rangers? Check. He’d had an early morning phone call from Shelby, the deputy district ranger stationed at the nearby springs. She hadn’t found any sign of an accident after a slow drive down the closest back roads, but she would be checking with the campgrounds to see if any campers hadn’t returned to their sites. He hadn’t heard back from her yet, but he was sure she’d call as soon as she knew anything.
Media? No check. But it was an obvious next step. Tassamara was much too small to have any local news outlets, but maybe they could get the word out in nearby towns. If one of the television stations in Orlando or Gainesville put her picture out, surely someone, somewhere, would recognize her. Maybe it would even get picked up nationally.
DNA? Maybe. Would there be any point in testing the girl’s DNA? The lab they used for testing would be backed up over the holiday, because of vacations. If he wanted to get a sample in, he should do so as soon as possible. Did he need to, though?
State police? He hadn’t contacted the highway patrol yet. Should he?
With a sigh, he set down his pen, carefully lining it up on top of his notepad. He was taking the wrong approach, he realized. He needed to look at the facts and see what they added up to, what the possibilities were, before he determined on his own course of action.
Fact number one: a seven-year-old child was found alone, at night, on a road near a national park. The obvious answer was that she’d wandered away from her parents and gotten lost. Simple enough.
But fact number two was that no one had reported her gone. That detail made the situation darker. He hadn't wanted to think about it last night. But as he watched her limping toward Nat's car and saw her clearly in the headlights—the tangled hair, the dirt, the bruises, the bloody feet, the disheveled clothes—he'd known she'd been in the forest for longer than an hour or two. She’d been lost for a while. And if anyone in the vicinity had reported a child missing, he would have heard about it. Hell, he would have been out searching.
Yes, her condition was fact number three. The surface damage was bad enough but not the whole of it. Maybe she was naturally thin, but maybe the pinched look around her face meant she’d gone hungry for more than a missed meal or two. Maybe her quiet was exhaustion and fear, but maybe it told a deeper story.
He sighed, rubbing a hand across his chin. So… a missing child not reported missing. What did that give him?
Picking up his pen, he wrote:
Parents failed to report
Parents unable to report
Parents don’t know? (Not with her parents?)
As he stared at the paper, wondering what he wasn’t seeing, the phone rang. Leaning forward, he picked it up. “Sheriff’s office.”
“We got nothing.” The skipped greeting revealed Shelby’s concern, though her tone was as laconic as always.
“Nothing?” He could hear his own dismay. He hadn’t realized how much he’d been counting on the rangers to find the girl’s family. His favorite scenario had been a dad on a trail with a sprained ankle, a frantic mom at a campsite with a dead cell phone.
“Nada. Zip. Zilch.”
“How far have you looked?”
“As far as we could, but you know the problem. We’ve got over 200 miles of off-road trails, hundreds of lakes and ponds and springs, fourteen major campgrounds, numerous recreation sites. Even assuming the girl couldn’t have walked any long distance from where you found her, it’s a lot of ground to cover.”
Colin snorted in agreement. He felt as if he’d covered quite a bit of it this morning, but they’d only explored a small area.
“But everyone’s accounted for at the nearest campground,” Shelby continued. “No missing kids have been reported. And no accidents have been found on the closest roads and trails.”
Colin rubbed his chin again. He needed to shave. And he needed to sleep. But neither of those things would happen any time soon. “What about the water?” he asked. “Anyone rent a kayak and not return it?”
“I’ll check,” Shelby answered. “Good idea. Except, of course…” She let the sentence trail off.
“Yeah.” Colin didn’t need her to explain. If the girl had somehow survived a boating accident, but the adult who’d been with her had disappeared, chances were they were looking for a drowning victim. “Her clothes were dry, though.” He’d take another look at the dress she’d been wearing, see if he could detect any sign it had been in the water. He scribbled a quick note on his pad.
“It was a warm day yesterday.” Shelby didn’t sound optimistic. “Only takes an hour or two to dry off.”
“Yeah, but let’s not go there yet. Let’s find a kayak first.” Colin wasn’t ready to give up on the picture of joyful reunions his imagination had painted.
“I’ll start making calls right away,” Shelby promised.
“Damn it,” Colin muttered. He’d hoped this would be easy. He tilted back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling. “She didn’t get dropped off by aliens.”
“You thinking flying saucer aliens? ET and friends?” Shelby’s tone held a smile.
“Not seriously, no.”
“Hmm. It could be the other kind of aliens, you know,” Shelby said, the humor gone.
“Illegals?” Colin tipped forward again. Parents afraid to report a missing child. Now that was a scenario he hadn’t thought of.
“You know we get squatters out here. It’s a big park. Policing almost four hundred thousand acres—well, there are corners we don’t get to so often.”
“I don’t know,” he said, doubt replacing his first enthusiasm. “She understood English. Recognized automatic door locks.”
“Did she look Hispanic?” Shelby asked.
Colin picked up his pen and tapped it on the desk. “Not so much, no. Light brown hair, blue eyes.”
“Central America’s got plenty of blue-eyed blondes. Guatemala, Argentina. Even Mexico’s got some.”
His response was a noncommittal hmm. It didn’t feel right to him, but he’d keep an open mind. “Will you keep looking?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah, of course,” Shelby assured him. “And I’m spreading the word. It’ll take hours, maybe more, to make sure every family is accounted for at the campgrounds. I’ll check on the kayaks, and we’ll be watching for abandoned cars, too. Maybe they were out for a day hike and something happened.”
Colin grimaced. Ocala was a wilderness and people sometimes underestimated its risks. Snakes, bears, and of course, other human beings. He hoped to God the girl’s family hadn’t fallen prey to a human predator. A bear would be bad enough.
“We’ll put the word out to the volunteers and guests, too,” Shelby added.
“Great. The more eyes looking, the better.” Colin thanked her and said good-bye before disconnecting.
He pulled the pad closer to him, looking down at his notes. Where to start? A soft knock on the door interrupted. He looked up absently, still focused on his list, before starting to his feet, almost knocking his chair over.
He’d been expecting them and yet somehow seeing Nat, here, in his office, was still a shock. If the sky looked bluer today and the trees greener, Nat looked more beautiful. The lightweight red sweater she wore over blue jeans wasn’t tight, but caressed her curves just enough to make him want to touch, while her dark hair was twisted down her back in one of those complicated braids she liked. For a fleeting second, he entertained a fantasy of pulling off the hair tie and running his hands through the silken strands as he spread them over her shoulders—and then he swiftly brought his recalcitrant brain back under his control and said hello.
Nat returned the greeting, but the girl by her side just stared at him, her expressive face solemn. Clean, her hair brushed, dressed in pink leggings and a faded t-shirt, she should have looked less lost, more relaxed, but she held herself in a way that looked poised to run, as if wiry energy coiled its way down her legs.
“This looks like you,” Nat said, glancing around his office.
Colin raised an eyebrow. “Sterile and industrial? Sorta rundown?”
His office was scrupulously neat, with all files tucked away into the racks of steel-grey cabinets lining one wall, but the building had been built in the 1970s and both the room and the furniture looked their age. Okay, so maybe the swamp green of the chairs wasn’t as ugly as he’d always thought, but that was about all he could say for it.
“I think I’ve been insulted,” he added in a stage whisper to the child. She didn’t smile, so he winked at her to let her know he was kidding.
“I was thinking orderly and practical,” said Nat. “No personal touches? No family pictures?”
Colin rolled his eyes. “You know how my family is. The walls would be covered if I let them get started.”
Nat’s lips quirked up. “How many nieces and nephews do you have now?”
“Uh…” Colin squinted and started counting. His six siblings were all married, all with kids. He could probably add them up, except that because his sisters had started having babies when he was a kid himself, some of them felt more like cousins. And some of those cousin-types were now grown, having babies of their own who called him “Uncle Colin.” Did they count? He supposed technically they did. Wouldn’t he be like a great-uncle or something to them? And his sister Jenna was on her second marriage, this one to a man with three kids of his own. Should he include his step-nieces and nephew? They felt more like relatives than his brother Brian’s kids did, because Brian lived in California and Colin hadn’t even met his youngest yet, so yeah, he should probably include Jenna’s step-kids.
“You don’t know the answer?” Nat interrupted his thoughts.
“I’m a great-uncle,” he protested.
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Nat said stiffly. “You always liked kids.”
“No, no, I mean, I’m a great-uncle and a step-uncle and a regular old uncle. Cecily’s got two and Minerva’s pregnant and Mitch—” He waved a hand in the air. “You get the idea. There’s a lot of ‘em and they keep making more.” He pointed at the bottom drawer of the file cabinet closest to the front wall. “Filled with drawings made by visiting munchkins. If I let them put them on the walls, they’d go floor to ceiling. Kinda tough to take your local law enforcement seriously when the office looks like a kindergarten classroom.”
A real smile crossed Nat’s face, humor lightening her eyes. “Well,” she said, her hand gently brushing the top of the head of the girl next to her, not a stroke but a butterfly caress, “maybe Kenzi can make you one more.”
“Kenzi?” Relief leaped in Colin’s chest. They had a name. If it was her first name only, it wasn’t much, but it was a starting place. He could work with that.
But Nat must have heard the excitement, because she was shaking her head. “No, sorry. I just needed something to call her.”
“And you picked Kenzi?”
Maybe his surprise sounded critical because Nat arched her eyebrows at him and said, frost tingeing her tone, “We like it.” The little girl looked up at her and gave a smile, her first sign of emotion.
Colin spread a hand in defense. “Hey, works for me.” Changing the subject, he added, “The caseworker’s down the hall. If you want to go fill her in, Nat, I can set Kenzi up with some crayons and paper here while we wait for the psychologist.”
Nat paused, before offering a reluctant nod. Her hand opened toward the little girl as if she wanted to touch her, but she pulled it back, turning the gesture into an encouraging wave into the room. Kenzi’s smile vanished, but obediently she took two steps forward, as Nat said, “All right. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
As Nat disappeared down the hallway, Colin opened his top desk drawer. He kept a box of crayons in it. But they weren’t the only personal item. His fingers brushed against a leather folder. He did have family photographs, but he kept them tucked away. A half dozen or more hid behind the closed cover: his parents, his grandmother, a family photo taken in his childhood with all of his siblings, and then, of course, Nat. Their prom picture, a snapshot from their college graduation, a photo of her laughing from a summer day spent at the beach.
For so long, he’d known death waited for him. And he’d been waiting for it. Sure, he’d kept his office professionally neat, but he also kept it easy to clean out. When it happened—when the day came that he would never show up to work again—it would have taken his deputy five minutes to drop everything that mattered to him in a cardboard box to deliver to his grandmother.
His home was as clean as his office. When his parents died, it had taken weeks to empty their house. Hours of sorting, gallons of tears. Not so much his—he’d been a stoic fifteen-year-old—but his sisters, his aunts, his grandmother. So much stuff—what to do with the dishes, the clothes, the furniture, the knickknacks, the paintings hanging on the walls? The souvenirs from his parents’ twentieth anniversary trip to Paris, the letters home from summer camps, the carefully saved kindergarten artwork of seven children, the sports trophies and certificates of achievement and prizes earned in busy lifetimes cut much too short?
He hadn’t wanted anyone to have to do that for him, and so he’d made it easy. Some clothes, a few books, electronics… and one potted plant. He hadn’t even been willing to have a pet. It wouldn’t have been fair.
But he hadn’t died.
He shook his head, trying to shake the thoughts away, and picked up the box of crayons. Kenzi hadn’t moved. She was still standing, stiff and silent, in the center of his office.
“Ya want to sit at my desk?” he asked her, keeping his tone light. “Pretend you’re the sheriff?”
He set the box of crayons down and picked up his notepad, closing it and tucking it into his pocket, before crossing to the filing cabinet he’d pointed out before. He had some recycled paper there, saved for just this purpose.
As he turned back around, paper in hand, a sudden flash of memory stilled him. Kenzi, crouched above him in the whirling light from his car. She’d been scared, but she hadn’t run. She was a child, but she’d tried to help him. And she had, hadn’t she? Her hands on his chest, a golden light, an all-encompassing pain.
“What happened?” His words were too abrupt. She stepped backward, moving away from him, body telegraphing wariness. “Last night, I mean.” He gentled his voice, but he could see it was not enough. “When you found me.”
Her eyes flickered sideways, glancing at the door as if measuring the distance to run.
Colin crouched, putting himself at her height. “I don’t remember what happened on the road very well. I remember my chest hurt. And I remember waking up.” He glanced at the doorway where Nat had disappeared. He remembered kissing Nat, the taste of her, the smell of her, the feeling of being absolutely present in his body, his heart pounding, his nerve endings sizzling. But between the pain and the joy, what had happened? “Between that, though, it feels like a dream. But you were there. In my dream, you were there. You did something, didn’t you?”
Her lower lip trembled before she pressed it tight against the upper. For all that she was speechless, her face communicated worlds. Fear, defiance, a stubborn pride in the face of perceived danger.
“I think you brought me back to life,” he said. “I think you healed me.”
Her gaze didn’t flinch. She stared at him steadily. But it was the look of a prey animal trapped by a predator, afraid to even quiver.
“I’m not complaining.”
Her eyes looked as if they were filling with tears. Was it emotion or a physiological reaction to her fixed stare?
Colin’s mouth twisted, a corner lifting in a wry smile. “If we were Wookies, I’d owe you a life debt,” he told her. “Do you know what that is?”
He waited. She blinked, and then blinked several more times, incipient tears disappearing. And then, with the tiniest possible movement, she shook her head, barely an inch in either direction.
Solemnly, Colin said to her, “A life debt means that because you saved my life, I have a sacred obligation to you. If we were Wookies, for the rest of my life, I would have to protect and serve you.”
Her nose twitched. She couldn’t have expressed her skepticism better if she’d scowled.
Colin couldn’t help chuckling. “All right, sweetheart. Paper, crayons, go wild.” He held the paper out to her. Still eying him with suspicion, she accepted it gingerly.
Before she could take a seat, Joyce, the office manager, knocked on his doorjamb. Thrusting two slips of paper at him, she said briskly. “The hospital called. They want to know if you’ve made any progress finding next of kin for that drug dealer. They’re talking about removing life support. I told them to call the FBI, but if you know anything you haven’t told me, you should call them back.”
Colin grimaced. That would make four dead from that fuck-up of a drug raid. The next time the Feds showed up in his town, he was confiscating all their weapons.
“I also rescheduled your budget meeting with the accountant about the fiscal year close, but he wants you to call him about the overtime numbers,” Joyce continued. “And the psychologist has arrived. She’s setting up in the interview room.”
Behind her, Nat and Carla, the caseworker from DCF, appeared. Nat looked troubled, her lips pursed, fine lines appearing between her brows. He shot her a questioning look, but she didn’t acknowledge it. Taking the phone messages from Joyce, he stuffed them into his pocket absently, trying to read Nat’s face.
For a moment, he was tempted to ask Joyce to take Carla and the girl to the interview room so he could talk to Nat in private, but one glance at Kenzi and he let that idea slide away. If she’d looked poised to run before, now she looked ready to fly away, her eyes flitting rapidly from one face to the next. As the four of them walked down the hall, Nat talked to her in a low voice but Kenzi still hadn’t relaxed as they entered the interview room.
Colin extended a hand to the psychologist, assessing her automatically as they exchanged greetings. Probably in her mid-forties, she had the type of trim figure that suggested a diet of yogurt and lettuce and a daily hour on the treadmill. She wore a plain, off-white button-down shirt paired with a straight brown skirt that extended beyond her knees. Tiny gold dots at her ears, a discreet cross dangling from a gold chain around her neck, and a gold wedding ring completed her professional look. Still, she had a faintly frazzled air about her, as if her day had started too early.
She obviously had experience with children, though. She’d pushed the table and chairs to the walls of the room and spread out a colorful cloth on the floor. A selection of toys—stuffed animals, dolls, even a few toy cars—were arranged on the cloth.
After introductions all around and a few moments of conversation, Colin, Nat, and the caseworker left Kenzi with the psychologist, retreating to watch the interview from the adjacent room.
“She looks familiar,” Carla said, as the psychologist knelt on the floor across from Kenzi. The young caseworker was frowning, her brown eyes intent on the little girl.
“You think you’ve seen her before?” Colin felt a surge of optimism. “Any idea where?”
Carla shook her head. “I’m not sure. And I could be wrong. She’s definitely not one of ours, I’m positive about that.” She smiled at the sheriff apologetically.
Colin’s optimism deflated like a flat tire.
Carla excused herself to make some phone calls, so Nat and Colin were left to watch the interview alone.
“You look worried,” Colin said immediately. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing,” Nat answered, but the fine lines between her brows deepened.
“Really. It’s not important.” Nat stared straight ahead into the room where the psychologist was trying to interest Kenzi in a stuffed bear.
That might be true, but Colin still wanted to know what had put that look into her eyes. “Nat. Let me help.”
She gave an exasperated sigh. “You haven’t changed a bit, have you?” But her tone held no anger, only resignation.
He touched her upper arm, feeling the softness of her cotton sweater under his fingers. “Tell me.”
She didn’t move away, but she shrugged off his hand as she spoke. “The psychologist. I’m not sure she’s the best person to work with Kenzi.”
Nat stepped closer to the glass that separated the observation room from the interview room. Putting a hand on the glass, she said, “She seemed… well, apparently she usually interviews clients in her office.” She shot him a quick glance and a twist of a grin. “And she made it very clear she prefers it that way.”
Colin shrugged. “Yeah, I heard about that, too. But taking the kid into Gainesville when we might find her parents any minute didn’t make sense to me.”
“No,” Nat agreed. “But she felt… I think… She might not be…” She looked away from him, back into the interview room.
“Did you see something? A premonition?” he prompted after a moment of silence.
“No.” Her voice was firm.
He paused, but when she said nothing further, he made the suggestion. “Why don’t you try?” Nat’s views of the future were reliable. He would trust any information she was willing to give him. If, that is, she was willing to share it. She’d always been reluctant to use her gift, but last night she’d been adamant.
She didn’t look at him but she pressed her lips together, before saying, “I don’t seem to be able to today.”
“Able to?” He blinked, startled.
“My foresight appears to be broken.”
“Broken?” His eyebrows shot up. Her foresight was part of her, as much her as her eyesight or sense of smell. How could it break?
She shook her head, dismissing the question. Turning away from the glass, she said, “It’s not important. I’m being silly. The psychologist’s a professional and I’m sure she’ll do her job well.”
Colin shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. Message received. She didn’t want to talk about her foresight or her worries. Still, he’d take her concern to heart.
“I should go,” Nat continued.
“Don’t you want to watch? Or at least say good-bye?”
“Grace bought her a doll online so I told her I’d see her again and bring her the doll. But this is a job for professionals now. I’m glad I could help. And that I was there last night.” The words were a dismissal, but Colin wasn’t ready to be dismissed.
“Speaking of last night…” Quickly, Colin stepped in front of the door. “We need to talk about it.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.” Nat lifted her chin into the air, her eyes meeting his squarely.
“Sure there is. I was supposed to die. And I didn’t. Aren’t you the least bit curious?”
Nat spread her hands. “Congratulations. I’m glad you survived. Now…” She shrugged. “Now I don’t ever want to speak to you again.”
“Nat,” Colin protested. Surely she could see she was being unreasonable.
“You made your choice a long time ago. Freedom, remember? Space?”
Colin opened his mouth to argue. He’d said that, sure, but it had always been bullshit. She had to know that. Yes, he’d broken up with her—dumped her, as she’d so bitterly said at the time—but it was for her own good.
Before he could speak, though, Nat continued, “I don’t know why you’re alive but I know it doesn’t matter to me that you are. I don’t care about you anymore, Colin.” Her voice was edged with the same bitter fury of a decade ago.
Colin took a deep breath, paused and let it out on a low, slow exhale. Nat had always been a lousy poker player. He knew she was lying. If nothing else, the fact that she was still so angry meant her feelings weren’t dead and gone. But debating with her would do nothing but strengthen her resolve. He needed a better approach. A plan. Maybe even a way to earn her forgiveness.
Stepping aside, he wordlessly gestured to the doorway, before taking the three steps forward that brought him next to the glass. He might have no choice but to let her go, but he wasn’t going to watch.
Staring ahead blindly, he tried to focus on the scene in the interview room, but until he heard the soft snick of the door shutting behind Nat, he couldn’t make his eyes see what was happening. When he finally did, he saw that Kenzi had backed herself against a wall and was looking as frozen as he felt.
Looked like nobody was going to be doing much talking today.Chapter Six
Natalya slid into her father’s favorite booth at Maggie’s bistro, her back to the door. She’d spent the short walk from the sheriff’s office talking herself down from her own irrational anger, but she could still feel the edges of it against her skin, a low-grade irritant like a mosquito bite on a humid day.
It made no sense to be angry, she told herself. Not at Colin, not at the world. Despite her words to him, she was glad the moment she’d dreaded for so long had finally come to pass and he’d emerged unscathed.
But Colin had had too much of her for too long—too much attention, too much love, too much anger. He wasn’t getting it back, no matter what he wanted. He’d broken her heart. Trampled her feelings into the dust. Been a callous, heartless, selfish bastard.
Still, it was a long time ago. She was over it, she reminded herself, trying to let go of the memories and the feelings they stirred. She took a breath, forcing her mind to one of the calming exercises she liked.
Let the thoughts drift away, like clouds in the sky, she told herself. Just clouds, just drifting.
Over the years, she’d grown adept at shoving him out of her mind and she intended to keep doing so. The status quo worked: she’d spent two years in Tassamara barely acknowledging his existence. She wanted to go back to that polite coolness. If only she could stop scratching at the thoughts. Why the hell was he alive?
And who was the girl? Leaving Kenzi behind at the sheriff’s office felt wrong. What choice did she have, though? The psychologist would interview her. DCF would take responsibility for her. With any luck, she’d be home by nightfall. The only task left for Natalya was to deliver the doll Grace had promised.
It still felt wrong. The psychologist had been abrupt, harried. She’d made it clear driving to Tassamara was an inconvenience. She’d probably planned to spend the day at home with her own family. Natalya hoped she wouldn’t rush the interview or jump to easy conclusions. Kenzi needed patience, kindness, a gentle touch. Natalya knew and liked the counselor who worked with the local agency. It was a pity she was out of state for the holiday.
“What’s wrong? You look upset.” At the sound of her father’s voice, Natalya twitched, startled. She’d been scowling down at the table surface, so lost in thought she hadn’t seen him arrive. He seated himself across from her, frowning, his brows drawn down over his bright blue eyes. “Are you all right? What can I do?”
She forced a smile then felt it soften into a real smile at the sight of the worry in his expression. Maybe it was her own anxiety about Kenzi driving the thought but she couldn’t help realizing how lucky she was. No parent was perfect. Max could be overprotective and managing, sure he knew best and wrong about that. But he loved her unconditionally. He’d do anything to keep his children safe and happy.
“I’m fine. You just startled me.”
Max’s frown grew deeper. “I did what? You don’t startle easily.”
Natalya’s smile grew wider. “Interesting, isn’t it?”
And then there was her foresight to consider. Where had it gone? All morning long, she’d been reaching for knowledge and finding it absent. It was like having a missing tooth. She couldn’t resist poking at the spot where she ought to find solid matter and instead finding only empty space. “My foresight is gone.”
“Gone?” Max’s brows shot up in alarm. “Gone how? Is that even possible?”
“Apparently it is.”
“Were you hurt? Did you hit your head?”
“No, no.” Natalya waved her hand, dismissing that idea.
“What happened?” Max asked.
Natalya paused. Colin was a sensitive subject between them. But she knew her father would learn the whole story eventually. Grace knew, Colin knew, she knew, and in Tassamara, what three people knew had a way of spreading through the entire town like a virus.
“Hey, Max, Natalya.” Akira joined them, dropping herself onto the seat next to Natalya without waiting for a response.
Her future sister-in-law would have to switch to maternity clothes soon, Natalya noticed. Her casual black t-shirt stretched tight across her rounded stomach and she was wearing a skirt instead of her more typical blue jeans.
“I hear you had an adventure last night, Nat. How’s the little girl?” Akira continued.
Okay, like a highly contagious virus. How had Akira heard? “Grace called you?”
“No, Rose told me.”
“Rose?” Natalya repeated, trying to place the name.
“You know,” Akira reminded her, voice patient. “The ghost that lives in my house. She was babbling about it this morning. Not making a lot of sense, actually, but I think I got the gist.”
“Oh, of course.” Natalya thumped the table with a closed fist. “The girl in costume Colin mentioned. I should have guessed.” She’d suspected last night that Colin’s story wasn’t a dream. “Colin thought she was a shina… something or other. Some kind of spirit guide.”
“Spirit guide?” Max leaned forward, laying his hands flat on the table.
“Hmm, I wouldn’t call her that. Not exactly.” Akira’s mouth tilted up at the corners in a mysterious smile.
“What happened to Colin? Why did he think he needed a spirit guide?” The lines of worry in Max’s forehead deepened.
“So did you find out who the little girl is and how she got lost?” Akira asked at the same time.
“But what was Rose doing?” Natalya asked Akira. The road leading to her house was miles from town. Why had Rose been wandering so far from home? Did she have some sort of connection to Kenzi? But if she did, wouldn’t she know who Kenzi really was? “How did she even get there? Do ghosts go for hikes?”
“Natalya.” Max interrupted, speaking in the firm, fatherly tone he used to use to send her to bed or tell her to stop fighting with her sister. “I’m worried about you, not ghosts. Please tell me what happened.”
Natalya smiled an apology. “Sorry, Dad. It was…”
She paused. What were the right words? The moment she’d dreaded for years? The night that changed her life long before it happened? Her nightmares finally come true? “It was my vision,” she continued at last. “You know the one. The dark night, Colin, the side of the road. The whole thing. Except it didn’t come true. Colin wasn’t dead, just unconscious.”
She glanced at Akira. Akira hadn’t lived in Tassamara a decade earlier. She wouldn’t know what Natalya meant. But Natalya found herself reluctant to explain. It was old news. To tell the story—the whole story—would mean reliving the pain.
“Is Colin all right?” Max put his hand over Natalya’s, squeezing it gently. “Are you all right?”
“He’s fine.” Natalya pressed her lips together. The sympathy she heard in her father’s voice brought unexpected tears simmering up in the back of her eyes. She had nothing to cry about, though. Nothing at all.
“And are you all right?” Max’s voice was gentle as he repeated the question, his hand tight and warm on hers where it lay on the table.
She turned her hand up and squeezed his, holding on to him, and nodded before letting go, blinking back the prickling in her eyes. “I’m fine, too,” she said, keeping her voice even. “He wasn’t dead. I took him to GD and ran a scan on him and saw nothing to indicate ongoing health problems. I don’t know what happened, or how it happened, but he’s healthy. He’s not going to die. Or at least not the way I saw him dying.”
“Are you sure?” Max asked. “Could it have been the wrong night?”
The corner of her mouth lifted up. “Me stumbling over his body by the side of the road in the middle of the night always seemed like a one-in-a-million chance. To have it happen twice would have to be more like one-in-a-billion. No, I think… I think my foresight was wrong.”
“Oh, I have to talk to Rose again.” Akira almost bounced in the seat, as if resisting the impulse to get up and leave immediately. “She didn’t tell me anything about the sheriff. Well, ah, that is, not anything much about the sheriff. Nothing about him dying, anyway.”
Her eyes met Natalya’s and Natalya knew immediately what Rose had told Akira. The tingle of tears was entirely gone as a flush of embarrassment surged into her cheeks, only to be replaced by resigned amusement. If ghosts carried the news, no wonder gossip spread so quickly in Tassamara.
“Your foresight was wrong,” Max mused, as the teenaged waitress approached their table. “That doesn’t happen much.”
Emma’s blonde hair was tipped with purple and she wore matching purple eyeliner in heavy streaks around her eyes. She carried a tall glass of icy sweet tea and a spinach salad. Without bothering to greet them, she asked, “You on breakfast or lunch?” as she placed the food in front of Natalya.
“Breakfast,” Max said quickly before Akira had a chance to respond.
“Not you.” Emma dismissed him. She lifted her chin in Akira’s direction. “Maggie told me to ask you.” She glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the kitchen, before adding in a hushed whisper, “She didn’t seem real happy about it.”
Max sighed. “Do you know what she’s making for me?”
Emma patted his shoulder sympathetically. “Grilled chicken and roast vegetables. The veggies are a winter squash mix, with fresh rosemary and sage. You’ll like it, I swear.”
He looked resigned, although he muttered a complaint under his breath, something about women holding grudges. Maggie, the owner and cook at the town’s only real restaurant, maintained a menu of casual favorites. It was diner food with a flair—pancakes stuffed with wild Maine blueberries, burgers with sweet potato fries, meatloaf topped with a barbecue sauce glaze that gave it a spicy kick. But the menus were only for the tourists. For the locals, Maggie cooked what she pleased. Most often, it was exactly what they wanted.
A few weeks ago, though, the bistro temporarily shut down because of electrical problems. Maggie blamed Max for the trouble. Ever since, she’d been taking revenge via food, cooking him meals that were not his favorites, although they were still better than anything he could make for himself or get elsewhere.
“Got it.” With a cheerful finger wave, Emma headed toward a neighboring table.
Akira leaned against the cushioned back of the bench, one hand resting on the curve of her belly. “Henry and I don’t seem to share taste in food,” she said with a worried frown. “We’re confusing Maggie. I hope this doesn’t mean he’s going to be a picky eater.”
“How many times am I going to have to apologize?” Max grumbled. “It’s not as if it was even my fault. I didn’t ask that ghost to show up. And I got the building inspector out here the very next day.” He stared at the kitchen for a moment, before standing in resolve.
“I’m just going to go talk to Maggie,” he said. Absently, he patted the back of Akira’s hand. “Don’t worry, dear. Zane didn’t eat anything but hamburgers, french fries, and white rice until he was ten or so. It didn’t hurt him.”
“Oh, why does that not surprise me?” Akira’s frown turned into a reluctant chuckle as Max moved away from the table.
Maggie hated people coming into her kitchen while she was working. If Max wanted forgiveness, interrupting her wasn’t the way to get it, Natalya thought. But she didn’t stop him. She wanted to talk to Akira alone.
“Speaking of Zane,” she said, reaching up with a nervous hand to squeeze the pressure points at the base of her skull, “did you happen to mention…”
Akira bit her lip. “Sorry. It was a surprise. I didn’t know…”
“You and the sheriff?” Akira asked, her tone a little plaintive, a lot amused.
“It’s a long story,” Natalya muttered, pressing harder. Her impending tension headache was going to be a doozy. She needed to get to Zane. Order him to talk to no one. She’d need to bribe him somehow. Or maybe blackmail?
“Zane was rushing out the door, though. He was late to a lesson with Dave. He didn’t say much, just blinked a lot. Maybe he didn’t hear me?”
Natalya let her hand slide from the back of her neck to cover her eyes. Great. If Zane was spending two hours in a plane with Dave, she’d already lost her chance to shut him up. And Dave talked to everyone. By tomorrow morning, she’d be fielding questions from half the town and all of Colin’s sisters. She dropped her hand and picked up her fork.
“I think I’d better savor this salad,” she said. “I may be hiding out in my house for the next few months.”
“Seriously?” Akira looked dismayed. “The sheriff’s not married. He’s cute. Why can’t you fool around with him if you want to?”
Natalya’s smile was rueful.
“You shouldn’t let other people dictate your sex life,” Akira said earnestly. “Your body belongs to you. It’s nobody’s business what you choose to do with it.”
“We have history.” Natalya took a bite of salad.
“Oh.” Akira fell silent, but Natalya could see the question in her eyes.
Reluctantly, she finished chewing and told the story. “Growing up, he was Lucas’s best friend. I was the little sister. You’d think, boys being boys, they’d have treated me like the pest I probably was. But it was never like that. Colin treated me—well, not like a little sister. Like a pet, maybe. A much loved pet.”
The memories were flooding back. Colin helping her climb into their treehouse, dragging her along when the ice cream truck drove by, pausing to wait for her when the boys’ longer legs let them go faster on their bikes. Swimming in the springs, cheering at one another’s Little League games, helping her with her math homework—he was there in so much of her past, a second big brother. The time she broke her collarbone, he was the one who walked her home and held her hand when she cried.
“When he was fifteen, his parents died. Drunk driver. He was so sad. So quiet. He’s got lots of family, so he wasn’t alone, but I was the one he talked to. He was still Lucas’s best friend, but he was my best friend, too. I went with him to his senior prom. Just friends. By my senior prom, everything changed. He was my world.”
She stabbed her fork into a piece of spinach. The salad dressing was unexpectedly warm, rich with flavors of bacon and caramelized onion. It was delicious, but she’d lost her appetite. She let the fork drop.
“We were engaged. I’d graduated from college and he’d finally gotten the job he wanted as a deputy sheriff in Tassamara. And I had a premonition. Of his death. Or rather, of finding his dead body by the side of the road.”
“Oh, Natalya,” Akira murmured. “I’m so sorry.”
Natalya forced her lips into an expression resembling a smile. “It was a long time ago.” She went on, keeping her voice steady. “I recognized the uniform, so I wanted him to quit his job. I knew it would be near a forest. We could have moved away, lived by the ocean, maybe the desert. We argued. And argued, and argued. And then we broke up.”
Positioned side-by-side as they were, it took only a slight motion of her head to turn her face away from the sympathy in Akira’s eyes. But she could feel her presence, warm and comforting, and it compelled her to add the truth. “Not really. He dumped me. Told me we were through and I should move on with my life. He didn’t want to see me any more.”
She took a sip of tea. Her head was throbbing now, a pained tempo beating in time with her pulse.
“He wasn’t willing to try to stop himself from dying?” Akira sounded incredulous.
“I like to say the future I see is a possibility. That our choices are our own. That we make our destiny. But when I see the future, it comes true.” Natalya could hear the bitter undercurrent in her own voice. “I try to make changes sometimes. It doesn’t usually work. One way or another—sometimes because of what I do—the future always happens as I see it.” She looked back at her future sister-in-law and added, “At least until last night. Funny timing, isn’t it?” Her chuckle held no amusement.
“That sucks,” Akira said, as Max returned to the table. He set a plate containing grilled chicken and roasted vegetables down as he slid into his seat.
“I didn’t hear yelling,” Natalya said, keeping her voice light.
Max snorted, but his expression was glum. “She says she’s cooking what her inspiration tells her to cook and if I don’t like it, I can order off the menu like anyone else.”
“At least she didn’t tell you to get out of her kitchen.”
“Oh, she did that, too.”
“But what good is it to see the future if you can’t do anything about it?” Akira ignored the interruption, sounding irate on Natalya’s behalf.
“Ha,” Max responded.
“Excellent question.” Natalya pushed her salad bowl away.
“Nat and I have differing opinions on this,” Max said, poking at the chunks of roasted squash on his plate. “I see it as an early warning system, a chance to prepare.”
“I see it as the ruin of every birthday surprise and twist ending.” Natalya tried to infuse her tone with humor. She didn’t want to stir up old arguments with her father about the usefulness of their foresight. He was comfortable using his ability, while she thought she’d done her best to ignore hers. It was disconcerting to discover how much she relied on it.
Max snorted. “The strength of your ability does come with disadvantages, my dear.”
“Every twist ending?” Akira asked. “You mean you always know how movies will end?”
“I’ve got a brain filled with spoilers,” Natalya said dryly.
“How do you know them, though?” Akira asked. “I assumed you had visions. Or maybe precognitive dreams.”
“I use the word vision sometimes, but for me, it’s closer to memory,” Natalya answered.
“What I have is more like extremely good intuition. I’ve learned to trust it,” Max responded. “Generally, I see possibilities. Likely futures, potential outcomes. Usually they’re related to hard facts. Semantic memory, conceptual in nature. Natalya sees what will be. Her signal comes in much clearer than mine, if you will.”
“How does that work?” Akira’s eyes narrowed, her intellectual curiosity clear.
“Ask me again in a few more years.” Natalya shrugged. “I spend a lot of time looking at brain scans, but I haven’t solved the puzzle of how our minds work. Yet.”
“But your foresight is like memory?” Akira prompted.
“I remember the future the way most people remember the past,” Natalya explained.
“Does that mean you know the next thing I’m going to say, the next person that’s going to walk in the door?”
Before Akira even finished her question, Natalya was shaking her head. “I’m not experiencing the future. I just remember it.”
“I don’t get it.”
Natalya gestured at the door behind them. “Do you remember the last person to walk in?”
Akira turned and let her gaze skim over the patrons at the restaurant. The booths that lined the walls were three-quarters full, mostly with families or teenagers, while the smaller tables held couples. A few middle-aged men sat together at the long counter, while a younger man sat alone at the other end.
“No idea,” she admitted as she turned back. She tilted her head in the direction of the counter. “I said hi to the guys from the quantum teleportation project when I came in so I know they were here, but otherwise I didn’t notice.”
“Right. It’s called selective attention. Memory requires three steps—we experience, we record, we retrieve. What you don’t notice, you can’t remember.”
“Most of us can’t remember much of anything,” Max pointed out. “We forget what we had for breakfast, much less every conversation we have.”
“I remember experiences that haven’t happened yet as if they were memories,” Natalya continued. “Sometimes vague or fuzzy, sometimes without the context that would help me understand what I’m seeing, but only ever when it’s something I would have remembered anyway.”
“But can you see anything you want to? If I asked you a question, something like—”
“Don’t!” Natalya interrupted Akira sharply. As Akira drew back, looking startled, Natalya repeated herself in a gentler voice. “Please don’t. I try not to see more than I have to.” She forced a smile, rubbing her temple. The tension was turning the pounding in her head into shooting pains running up her jawline. “It causes a lot more trouble than it’s worth.”
“But you know everything about your future?” Akira still sounded doubtful. One hand curled around her abdomen protectively, as if she were considering the advantages and disadvantages.
Natalya shook her head. “No. My foresight gets triggered. Something—a smell, a feeling, a thought, a question—brings the memory to my conscious mind. But it’s not all encompassing. Or constant, thank God. My worst nightmare is to develop hyperthymestic syndrome.”
“Hyper-thy-mes-tic?” Akira sounded the word out. “From the Greek? Speed memory?”
“Vast memory, I think. It’s a neurological condition, possibly caused by a defective frontostriatal circuit. It’s characterized by an enlarged temporal lobe and caudate nucleus, which affect—” Natalya paused at the blank look on Akira’s face. Right. Akira had a PhD and a fondness for science, but she wasn’t a medical doctor. “People with it remember every detail of their lives. Random actions can trigger a flood of memories. One patient described it as living life with a split-screen, always half her attention caught by her memories of the past.”
Akira wrinkled her nose. “That doesn’t sound fun.”
“Not so much, no.” Natalya tipped her head from side to side, trying to ease the tension in her neck.
With a loaded plate in one hand, a coffee pot in the other, Emma swung by their table. As she slipped the plate in front of Akira, she glanced at Max. “I don’t mean to be rude, Mr. Latimer, but Maggie’s not mean. Well, maybe a little mean. But not, like, mean-mean.”
“She’s torturing me,” Max complained. “I wanted bacon and eggs.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like she plans what to make for people, you know?” Emma said. Max frowned but Akira gave Emma a nod, and, encouraged, Emma continued. “When she doesn’t know what to make she gets cranky, but with you, she does know. It’s good stuff, too, not like that time with the turkey sandwich. That time, she was mad. It was, like, symbolic, that turkey.”
Natalya looked at her father’s plate and her eyes narrowed. Emma had a point. Max’s food looked and smelled as delicious as everything else Maggie cooked, despite its simplicity. Okay, maybe not quite as delicious as Akira’s blueberry waffles, but still quite tasty.
“But that’s not turkey,” Emma finished. With a satisfied nod, as if she’d said what she wanted to say, she headed off to refill the next table’s coffee cups.
“When did you last have a checkup, Dad?” Natalya asked. Maybe there was a subliminal meaning to the heart-healthy, low-sugar food Maggie was feeding Max.
“A checkup?” His gaze slid sideways. “Oh, it’s been a while.”
“How long a while?” she asked as he turned his attention to his plate.
“Let me see.” Busily, he sliced into his chicken, working with more precision than strictly necessary. “I suppose, uh, I suppose it would have been before your mother passed away.”
“Dad!” Natalya protested. Her mother had died several years ago, and her father was fast approaching his sixties. “Regular checkups are basic self-care.”
“She scheduled that stuff for me,” he said, hunching his shoulders like a scolded schoolboy. “I guess I should do that, huh?”
“I guess,” Natalya answered, a touch of sarcasm in her voice, before frowning. This conversation should have stirred up foreknowledge for her. Mentally, she poked at the hole in her memory again.
“What is it?” her father asked. His eyes went vague and unfocused for a moment or two and then he shook his head. “I don’t see anything. Did you just—”
“No,” Natalya interrupted him. “Nothing. But my foresight isn't working, I told you that. You should still schedule a checkup.”
“You know, the longer I live here, the more I realize why no one gets too bothered when I see ghosts,” Akira said, cutting up her waffle. “Do you really think Maggie is somehow psychically choosing a diet for Max based on data she couldn’t possibly have?”
Natalya lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Why take chances?”
Max cut off a bite of his chicken. “I suppose she’d give me bacon and eggs if I insisted. But I like being surprised by my food.”
“Does Maggie surprise you?” Akira asked Natalya.
“Not usually,” Natalya admitted. “It’s hard not to think about eating when you sit down at the table. With such an immediate experience my foresight is—well, was—quite clear.”
“Was,” Max repeated. “Where did it go?”
“No idea.” The ice was melting in her tea, the water condensing on the sides of the glass. Natalya drank a little more of it, wondering how long it would take her to get used to the loss. Would it be permanent? Was her foresight gone forever? As she set her glass down, the corner of her mouth quirked up. If only she could see the future…
Akira said thoughtfully, “I wonder…” before letting her words trail off and putting a bite of waffle in her mouth.
Natalya tilted her head, waiting for Akira to finish her thought. In the purse by her side, her phone buzzed. Sliding her hand into the purse, she touched the phone’s plastic, and then gave a sigh when she realized she didn’t know who was calling.
“Do you mind if I get this?” At her father’s shrug and Akira’s head shake, she pulled her phone out. She didn’t recognize the number, so frowning, she answered it.
“Nat, good. I’m glad you picked up.”
A little jolt of recognition shot down her spine at the sound of Colin’s voice, followed by a flush of heat. If she’d known who was calling, would she have answered? She didn’t know, and the uncertainty put bite in her tone as she asked, “How did you get this number?”
“Which brother?” Natalya needed to know who to scold. If she wanted her ex-boyfriend to have her unlisted number, she’d give it to him herself.
“Lucas. Apparently Zane called him?” His tone held a question.
Natalya closed her eyes. What had Zane told Lucas? She supposed it depended on what Akira had told Zane, and what Rose had told Akira. If her father wasn’t sitting across the table, she’d ask, but that wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have under her father’s interested eyes.
“I managed to talk him out of flying home to kick my ass without pulling out my badge, but just barely. You might want to give him a call.”
She managed to bite back a groan with an effort. Clenching her teeth, though, sent tendrils of tension pain spiraling into her head.
“But that’s not why I’m calling. Where are you?”
“At Maggie’s,” she answered automatically, distracted by her headache. Then, “Why?” she asked suspiciously.
“Excellent. I need you. Can you get back here?”
“You need me?”
“Yeah. No,” he corrected himself. “Kenzi needs you.”
“What’s going on?”
“Just get over here. Please.”
“What’s happening?” There was no answer. “Colin?”
But the line had gone dead.Chapter Seven
Shifting from foot to foot, Colin knocked on the front door of Nat’s cottage. As he waited for her to answer, he realized what he was doing and, disgusted, forced himself to stand still. He’d knocked on doors to serve divorce papers and foreclosure notices, evict tenants, break up domestic disputes and arrest violent criminals. It was ridiculous to feel nervous. Nat wasn’t going to shoot him, after all. But when she yanked open the door, he wasn’t so sure.
“Anything?” she demanded, not bothering to greet him.
“Not a clue,” he admitted.
“It’s been three days.” Nat kept her voice low, but her accompanying glare was heated.
“I know.” For seventy-two hours, ever since he’d persuaded her to rescue Kenzi from the system, he’d been reassuring her. Give it a day. One more night. Just a little longer. But it was getting increasingly difficult to pretend a confidence he didn’t feel.
“What are you doing about it?”
“We’re trying, Nat.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I’ve had deputies running the plates of every car at the campgrounds and recreation areas, searching for one that’s been abandoned. We’ve had people scouting all the back roads, all the trails. By now the rangers must have shown her photo to every registered camper in the area, looking for someone who recognizes her. But we’ve got nothing.”
“Registered campers?” Nat recognized the caveat immediately.
“The squatters are tougher to find.”
Nat glanced over her shoulder before opening the screen door and stepping out onto the porch. The night was cool, but not cold, and she didn’t bother with a jacket. She looked up at him under the glow of her porch light.
He let his gaze drop to her mouth, wanting to taste her, wanting to tug her into his arms and feel her against him. She must have recognized the look, because her chin tilted up—unfortunately, not in the “kiss me, now, you fool,” way but with a narrowed eye expression that said, “touch me and I’ll smack you, jerk.”
“What next?” she asked.
“We’ve been trying to get her picture on the news,” he answered. “It may be our best chance of finding someone who recognizes her.”
Nat wrinkled her nose. “No one in Tassamara is going to like having reporters in town.”
“We’ve had no luck so far. Apparently a pop star got caught with a prostitute. The television stations don’t have time for anything else.
Nat’s scowl deepened. “You’d think a little girl lost in the woods on Christmas Day would be more important.”
“You’d think,” he agreed, his frustration adding an edge to his tone, before he changed the subject. “You’re sure she doesn’t speak Spanish?” He’d asked the question before. It was wishful thinking to hope the answer might be different.
“She doesn’t speak anything,” Nat responded with a snap. “She doesn’t speak at all.” He looked at her silently and she sighed, before adding, in a more reasonable tone. “My Spanish isn’t great, but she doesn’t show any indication of understanding it. English is no problem. Why?”
“Illegal immigrant parents might have an excuse for not searching for her.”
It was Nat’s turn to fall silent. For a moment, they stood together in shared worry, Nat looking up at him, and then her gaze fell. She stepped away and dropped down to sit on the porch steps. Absently, she swept the wood floor with her hand, grimacing at the dust before brushing her hands together to wipe it off. “I should sweep.”
Colin sat down next to her. Their shoulders brushed, but Nat made no move to scoot away.
“If nobody’s looking for her…” Nat said softly. “You’re thinking Hansel and Gretel?”
“No Hansel,” he answered. He looked over his shoulder at her neat cottage with its trim blue and white paint. “And your house lacks the requisite gingerbread.” He paused. Trying to make a joke of it didn’t help. “But yeah. Her parents might have abandoned her.”
“I still don’t think she’s autistic.” Nat stared out into the darkness as if she could see into the trees. “Or even truly emotionally disturbed. She’s been through a trauma, that’s clear, but when she thinks she’s alone, she relaxes. She seems like a perfectly normal child. She plays, she draws.”
The psychologist had been quick to give up on interviewing Kenzi, and as quick to decide the girl displayed symptoms of autism and should be placed in a residential facility. Colin was no expert, but he didn’t think a cursory non-interview with a lost child was the right basis for that diagnosis or that decision. Nat agreed. After a confrontation with the psychologist in which the woman stiffly asserted that she’d done what she could, the stalemate was resolved when Carla, the caseworker from the foster care agency, suggested Kenzi stay with Nat. For a little while longer, until her parents could be found.
“She watches television.” Nat pulled her hair over her shoulder and started twisting a lock around her finger, winding it tighter and tighter. “Too much television, probably. She watches it as if she’s hypnotized. It’s the Disney channel, but I’m not sure it’s good for her.”
“Is that what she’s doing now?” Colin asked.
Nat nodded. “I was cooking dinner.”
As if in response, his stomach rumbled. He put a hand on it. “Sorry. Long day, not much food.”
She pressed her lips together for a moment before letting the words slip out. “There’s plenty if you want to stay.”
Colin didn’t grin but his lips twitched. If he gauged her mood correctly, her ingrained southern hospitality had overridden her anger, and she was already regretting the words. Still, he would grab the opportunity with both hands. “I’d appreciate that, thank you.” A muscle flickered in her jaw as if she were gritting her teeth so he added easily, as if it were the only reason he was staying, “I’d like the chance to spend some more time with Kenzi.”
“Watching her watch television isn’t fascinating.” She’d wound her dark hair so tightly around her finger that the tip was turning red
“I want to ask her a few more questions.”
Nat tugged her finger free. “You think she’ll talk to you?”
“Nah.” He shook his head. He’d been too busy over the past few days for more than fleeting interactions with Nat and Kenzi, but he’d seen the girl’s body language when Nat returned to the sheriff’s office. Her muscles relaxed, her breathing slowed in relief and trust. When Kenzi talked, it would be to Nat, he was sure. Still, given that she hadn’t yet spoken, they couldn’t count on that. “But her reactions could give us some clues to her background.”
“I don’t want you scaring her.” Nat turned to face him. “She’s been scared enough.”
“Nothing like that.” He put up a hand, fingers spread wide.
“She frightens easily.” Nat’s mouth twisted. “Yesterday…”
“What?” Colin prompted when she fell silent.
“After I got off the phone with you, I couldn’t find her,” Nat said reluctantly. Their eyes met and Colin winced at the guilt in Nat’s gaze. “It took me a while to track her down. She was hiding in the bathroom closet, squeezed into a space that should have been way too small for her.”
Colin wished he could put a comforting arm around her shoulders and hug her close. The previous day, his sister Jenna, the one closest in age to him, had dropped by Nat’s house with an armload of hand-me-down clothes from her youngest daughter for Kenzi. It would have been a nice gesture, but she’d been bubbling over with delight about his survival and the future, a future she assumed would include Nat. Nat hadn’t been pleased. She’d let him know about it—at a higher than average decibel level—the moment Jenna left.
“I won’t say anything that would scare her,” Colin promised. “I’ll be careful.”
“Avoid asking about her parents. She shuts down when you bring them up.”
“Voice of experience?”
Nat spread her hands. “Just casual questions. Does your mom make you breakfast? Are your dad’s eyes blue like yours?”
Those were exactly the sorts of questions Colin hoped to ask. He should have known Nat would be trying the same thing.
“She’s locking her secrets up in silence. I’ve been looking for the key,” Nat continued. “It’s not parents, it’s not home, it’s not her own toys. It’s not favorite foods or television shows. I don’t know what it is yet.”
“We’ll find it,” Colin said. “Seven-year-olds aren’t noted for their ability to keep secrets.”
“She’s doing pretty well so far,” Nat answered, her voice dry. It softened as she added, “It’s too bad that Lucas isn’t here. He could tell us what she’s thinking.”
Nat’s brother, Lucas, was telepathic. Unlike his siblings, however, he didn’t spend much time in Tassamara. He’d been in town for a few weeks, but on Christmas Day he and his girlfriend, Sylvie, had flown to North Carolina to spend some time with her family.
“Could you call him?” Colin asked.
Nat tipped her head to the side, a movement part nod, part shake. “I did, but he and Zane got called in on some government case. They flew to Japan the day after Christmas. He said they’d try to get back to town as soon as possible, but they’re tracking some high-level security leaks and it might take a while. Kenzi’s not in any danger, so I can’t say it’s urgent.”
“Is there anyone else at GD who could help?” Colin suggested. The company Nat’s family owned had an eclectic staff, many of whom had unusual abilities.
“Maybe, but we’re closed until after New Year’s,” she answered. “We’re on our own until then.”
Colin rubbed his chin, feeling the stubble he needed to shave away. “Maybe we could pick up some clues about where she’s from based on her behavior.”
“Table manners?” he suggested. “I don’t imagine squatters camping in the forest devote much attention to teaching their kids how to use silverware.”
Nat arched a brow, but her look was thoughtful, not doubting.
“I’d like to take a look at her drawings, too.”
“Hoping to find the deep psychological undercurrents hidden within them?”
“Well…” Put that way, it sounded stupid, but Nat shook her head.
“I’ve been looking, too,” she admitted. “Developmentally, they seem appropriate. Rounded human shapes, a step up from stick figures, with all the body parts one might expect, including facial expressions. She’s using colors, a baseline, traditional symbols. I’m no expert, but I’d say she’s a pretty good artist for her age.”
“A baseline? Traditional symbols? That sounds like expertise.”
“Well, art.” Nat gave a shrug, as if her words were a complete answer. She stood, brushing off the seat of her pants. “For psychological analysis, though, we’d need her to explain her drawings. To tell us who the people and places are, her feelings about what she’s creating.”
“Can’t you tell from looking at them?” Colin asked as he stood and followed Nat up the steps.
She glanced over her shoulder at him as she reached the door. “No, not really. Although… well, I’ll let you see for yourself.”
On that cryptic note, she opened the door and went inside.Chapter Eight
Letting Colin stay for dinner was a terrible idea. Polite, maybe, but why had she let her mother’s manners overrule her common sense? The more time she spent with him, the more conversations they had, the easier it was to fall back into their old patterns.
She and Colin thought alike. In the old days, they could finish one another’s sentences. They’d never shared interests: he liked comic books and football, she preferred novels and art exhibits. But their companionship ran bone deep. It would be much too easy to get used to having him around again.
And she didn’t want him around. She didn’t want him in her space. She didn’t want to have to remember him here, to picture him sitting on her comfortable couch, his long legs outstretched. When he was gone, she didn’t want to hear the sound of his quiet chuckle in the silence or smell the scent of his laundry soap in the air.
So many of the memories of her past belonged to him. Her childhood, her adolescence, her college years—all were stamped Natalya plus Colin in the scrapbooks of her mind. She’d spent years missing him as if his absence was a hole carved out of her life, and now that her life was whole again, she didn’t want to give him any part of her present or future.
At the thought of the future, Natalya searched her mind, hoping to shake loose a premonition, any premonition. Nothing came to her. It was maddening, like not being able to remember her name or her birthday. She was clenching her teeth, she realized, and forced herself to relax.
Enough thinking. Exist in the now, she reminded herself. The past couldn’t hurt her and the future would be what it would be. Thoughts were just leaves on water, clouds in the sky, floating away.
Kenzi was still planted on the couch, watching television with hypnotized eyes, the doll Grace had given her tucked against her side. Natalya wasn’t sure whether she’d let it out of her sight once since it arrived. Behavior. What did it mean that Kenzi was so fascinated with television, so attached to her doll? It wouldn’t surprise Natalya to learn the doll was the nicest one Kenzi had ever owned. Grace hadn’t skimped on quality. But that would be true for most children, Natalya suspected.
The television, though—was it her usual babysitter? She certainly watched with the glazed concentration of an addict, but she’d never once moved to turn on the box herself or even change the channel.
“That’s beautiful.” Colin’s voice was hushed with awe. Natalya glanced at him in surprise, but he was looking past Kenzi, at the painting of her mother she’d hung over the couch.
Natalya had painted it from a mix of photograph and memory. The original photo had given her the shape of the nose and the cheekbones, the angle of the neck, the amber gold of the hair. But the stubbornness in the set of the chin and the light of laughter in the eyes—those had come from Natalya’s memories of her mother.
The curve of the mouth had taken forever. Natalya had wanted to capture a very specific smile. Not a single photograph—not that there were many, given that her mom was usually the one behind the camera, rarely in front of it—had the exact look of exasperated affection her mother had worn so well. It had taken weeks of trial-and-error, of scribbled-out sketches and consultations with her brothers and sister for Nat to get it right, but she had in the end.
It was probably the best piece of work she’d ever done.
“You painted it?”
“It’s incredible. That’s not watercolors, though.”
She should walk away, go finish dinner. Letting him into her house didn’t mean letting him into her life. But her art was a subject near to her heart and hard to resist. “No, it’s oil. I started using oil pastels in med school because I didn’t have a lot of time, and they were easy to carry around. And then I switched to oil paint a few years ago. I tried acrylic but it dries too fast.”
“Aren’t oil paints supposed to be difficult?”
Natalya made an equivocal gesture with one hand. “Slow to dry. But flexible. I love the translucency.”
“Is that what gives her skin that light?”
Damn it. Every member of her family and several friends had seen the portrait of her mother. Every single one had admired it. Her brother Zane had asked for one of her preliminary sketches and it was hanging, framed, in his office. But Colin was the first to express interest in how Natalya had done it.
“Yes.” She kept her answer short. “I should go finish dinner.”
She took three steps away and was almost at the door to the kitchen when Colin spoke again. “She wasn’t mad at me, you know.”
Natalya’s chin went up as she turned back. “She never got mad at you. You were the golden boy.”
Colin chuckled, but his eyes were on the portrait. “Well, the whole pitiful orphan deal was good for a pass on most stuff.”
Natalya pressed her lips together. Colin might make light of it now, but his parents’ deaths had been devastating. He’d wound up spending almost as much time at her house as his after that. Not because he didn’t have relatives who wanted him—he did. But he’d bounced around from house to house, family to family, as situations changed.
His aunt got pregnant and he moved to a sister’s. The sister got a new job with a longer commute and he wound up with his brother. He failed chemistry and his grandmother decided his brother wasn’t responsible enough to be taking care of a teenager, so he moved to an uncle’s. The love and family support had been consistent, but still, her house was as much his own as any of the places he’d spent the night.
“That wasn’t it, though,” he continued. “She thought I did the right thing.”
“She—” Natalya snapped, her voice hot. And then she paused. Kenzi was looking at her now, face unsmiling. Natalya took a deep breath, released it, took another, and when she spoke again the heat was gone. “She was wrong.”
“You were unhappy. She saw that. She wanted what was best for you.”
“I was perfectly capable of making those decisions myself.” Natalya’s words were even, her tone calm.
“But you wouldn’t. You would have just waited it out.”
“Colin?” Natalya waited until he looked at her instead of at the portrait. “Cut it out or you’re going hungry.”
A corner of his mouth turned up and he looked back at the portrait. “I miss her still.”
Natalya opened her mouth and then closed it again, the words unsaid. Unfair, unfair, her brain protested. One short conversation and the solid wall of her resistance to him, the one that should have been made out of impenetrable steel, had melted into something more like flimsy wood.
Maybe she should forgive him. Not get back together with him. That was definitely out. But let go of being angry at him? Stop holding onto a grudge that didn’t do much except tie her stomach into knots?
“I’m going to finish dinner,” she said brusquely and headed into the kitchen.
Not much needed finishing. The chicken enchiladas had five more minutes on the timer and the salad was the rip-open-the-bag-and-toss-it-into-a-bowl kind. But she wanted the moment of solitude.
He’d shut her out of his life, she reminded herself as she lifted plates out of the cupboard and set them on the counter. He’d chosen to live without her, she thought as she pulled silverware out of the drawer and set it atop the plates. He hadn’t wanted her, as she found the salad tongs.
But she sighed as she tugged open the bag of lettuce. Knowing he would die, waiting for him to die, and never knowing when had been hell. Those months were the worst of her life. When she’d gone away to medical school, she’d buried herself in her work, but every minute she’d been away from Tassamara, she’d known she was safe. He was safe.
The best months were the winter months. The tree-lined road in her premonition could have been many times, many places, but not a northern winter. She’d hated the cold, though. Snow was fun the first time and thoroughly unpleasant on every subsequent experience. Why didn’t the romantic Christmas specials ever mention that snow burned when you touched it?
And she’d missed home. Living in the outside world meant always guarding what she said, always avoiding revealing her foreknowledge. Working in a hospital made that close to impossible, and she’d had to learn to accept the peculiar looks and whispers. In the end, tired of fighting fate, she’d come home.
She stared down at the salad bowl, not really seeing it. Thinking about the past wouldn’t get her anywhere. She needed to focus on the present. Kenzi. That’s who she should be thinking about. What could they discover about Kenzi without words? What did she already know about her that she hadn’t realized she knew?
She didn’t hear any conversation coming from the living room, so she crossed back to the archway leading to the other room. Colin still stood where she’d left him, his gaze on the girl. Kenzi ignored him, but she was holding her doll a little tighter.
“Kenzi?” Natalya wasn’t sure if this would work. Seven. What did parents expect from their seven-year-olds? When Kenzi looked her way, she said, “The sheriff’s going to be staying for dinner. Would you come set the table, please?”
Without hesitation, the girl hopped off the couch and joined her in the kitchen. Natalya watched as she looked around the room, spotting the plates and silverware on the counter. Trying not to look as if she were attending to Kenzi’s every move, Natalya turned to the oven, finding a mitt and taking the enchiladas out.
Carefully, Kenzi set her doll on the seat she’d been using at previous meals, then crossed to the counter and reached up for the dishes. Back at the table, she left the dishes stacked as she climbed up on a chair and took table mats from the pile in the center of the table, then distributed the mats, plates, and silver. That answered that, thought Natalya, grabbing a serving spoon out of the container set by the stove.
“Interesting,” Colin said quietly from the doorway.
“She makes her bed every morning,” Natalya answered, equally quietly. “It’s what made me think of it.”
“Huh.” Colin cocked his head to one side. “We might have to consult an expert or two, but I think that could be considered unusual.”
“Little pitchers,” Natalya cautioned, but she knew exactly what Colin meant. How old had she been before she made her bed every day without maternal prompting? Twenty-five? Twenty-six?
As they ate, Colin chatted as easily as if his companions were responding, but Natalya was as silent as Kenzi as she turned over her interactions with the girl in her mind. Kenzi definitely wasn’t autistic, she decided firmly. The psychologist had seen her lack of eye contact, her refusal or inability to speak, her social withdrawal—all of which were potentially symptoms of autism. But she hadn’t seen the fuller picture.
“Nat?” Colin’s voice interrupted her reverie. “Earth to Nat.”
She blinked at him, brought back to her surroundings. “Lost in thought. Sorry.”
“Thanks.” Her eyes narrowed. Was he going to start reminiscing about their past? That she’d had enchiladas in the oven was pure chance, but they’d shared a fondness for Mexican food during their UCF years. The first few times she’d made them at home, he’d been her appreciative and tolerant test audience.
“I like the kick.” His words were polite, but the minuscule tilt of his head in Kenzi’s direction was loaded with meaning. Natalya followed his gaze.
Kenzi’s shoulders were slumped as she eyed the food on her plate with all the misery of a prisoner contemplating the firing squad. As Natalya watched, she took a bite. The wince and shudder as she swallowed were subtle, but unmistakable.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry. You should have…” She stopped herself before letting the words slip out. Kenzi could have told her, but she should have paid more attention. Or at least been more thoughtful. “You don’t have to eat that.”
Kenzi stared at Natalya. Her gaze darted to Colin’s face and back again, but she didn’t push her plate away in relief or even put down her fork. If anything, she clutched her fork tighter.
Natalya pursed her lips before exchanging glances with Colin. With a raised eyebrow, she silently asked him what he thought. He lifted a shoulder, then reached across the table and took Kenzi’s plate. “I love enchiladas,” he said cheerfully, scraping her tortillas onto his plate. “But maybe Nat can find you something less spicy.”
“Toasted cheese?” Natalya asked Kenzi. The little girl’s eyes were bright as she nodded.
After the cheese sandwich was made and duly consumed, Natalya suggested to Kenzi that she show Colin her drawings. As Natalya cleared the table, she could hear Colin admiring Kenzi’s work in the front bedroom. A reluctant smile curled her lips at the sound of his voice saying, “Interesting use of color. You must have worked hard on that one.” It sounded as if he hadn’t forgotten her lectures on what an artist wanted to hear.
She separated the leftovers into multiple plastic containers. Usually she got a week’s worth of lunches out of a pan of enchiladas, but not this week. But as she looked for space in the crowded fridge, she sighed. She wanted to stir up the embers of her anger against Colin and it got harder by the minute. But he’d made the choice to push her away, to shut her out, and there was no going back from that.
She jumped at the sound of his voice right behind her, sending the last container skidding onto the floor. “Damn it.”
His eyes glinted with amusement. “If her first words are damn it, we’ll know who to blame.”
She scowled at him. He bent down to pick up the container as he grinned back at her. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.” He handed her the dish. In his other hand, he held a few pieces of papers—selected drawings, she assumed, from the pile Kenzi had created in the past days. “Have you seen these?”
She finished storing the leftovers, craning her neck to see which drawings he held. “Yeah. Or at least the top one.”
He took them to the table and spread them out. “What did you think?”
She joined him, standing by his side. “I assume you’re not asking for my opinion as an art critic?”
“This…” He tapped the first drawing. The picture showed a house and several figures against a background of pine trees. In some ways, it seemed like a typical child’s drawing. The house was a square box with a triangle roof and the trees were angled lines drawn away from a central stem. The figures were only slightly more elaborate than stick people. But the house was colored completely black, with none of the doors or windows of a traditional house. And the figures were all different sizes, all different places. “This has to be meaningful, right? Not too many black houses around here.” Colin sounded optimistic, as if he were ready to start searching for a house of that description immediately.
Natalya wrinkled her nose as she shook her head. “Think metaphor,” she suggested. She glanced over her shoulder, wondering if Kenzi was close enough to overhear them.
“She’s drawing me a picture to take home with me,” Colin said. “I closed the door to the bedroom.”
She could still be listening, so Natalya kept her words cautious. “If this represents a real location, I think it’s safe to say it’s not a good place. But I don’t think you can assume the actual house looks anything like this.”
Colin grimaced. “And the people?”
“I’m sure she doesn’t know anyone who’s as big as a house,” Natalya replied, touching the largest figure. “Or as small as this one,” she added, tapping a tiny figure at the edge of the paper, shorter than the bottom branches of the pine tree it stood under.
“What do you think is going on here?” Colin asked, pointing to a central grouping of figures.
“That’s… troubling,” Natalya said cautiously. One of the shapes appeared to be lying down. Kenzi might have meant the red scribble across its chest as writing on a t-shirt. Or spilled juice, perhaps? But blood seemed painfully likely.
“Could she have witnessed a crime?” Colin asked.
Natalya shrugged. “Maybe. But I don’t think we can make any assumptions.”
“Yeah, it’s not a lot to go on.” Colin agreed. He shuffled the first picture to the side and pulled the next one closer to him. “What about this one?”
“Huh.” Natalya hadn’t seen this one before. Three figures stood side-by-side. One had long dark hair and wore carefully filled-in blue pants and a blue shirt, much like the blue jeans and sweater Natalya was wearing. The next, much smaller, had brown hair in wild curls, with pink pants and a blue-and-white shirt. The third had blonde hair, a wide smile, and a pink dress.
“That’s got to be you, right?”
“This must be what she was drawing when I was painting this afternoon.” Natalya eyed the image thoughtfully. “Why did you pick this one out?”
When she’d brought Kenzi back to her house after the disastrous meeting at the sheriff’s office, she’d had no idea what she was going to do with the girl. With the company closed for the holiday week, she didn’t need to go into work. But she hadn’t spent extended time with a child in years. When her college friends were getting married and having babies, she’d been immersed in medical school and residency. What did seven-year-olds like to do exactly?
But Kenzi was easy. Natalya didn’t have crayons, but she had oil pastels and colored chalk. That and a pile of scrap paper had kept Kenzi busy for hours. With the television, her doll, a few old board games Nat had stashed in a closet, an occasional trip into town or friendly visitor, and a daily walk by the water, they’d managed to spend their time together quite contentedly. Natalya suspected most children wouldn’t be so complaisant, but she wasn’t complaining.
“The girl in the pink dress,” Colin answered.
“Grace, you think?” Grace had dropped by every day. She seemed to have set a personal goal of making Kenzi laugh. She hadn’t succeeded yet, but she’d gotten Kenzi’s cheeks to dimple with restrained amusement.
“No, I don’t think so.” Colin pulled the next image over. This one was again of a girl in a pink dress but this time she was outlined in yellow.
“Hmm, interesting.” Natalya picked up the drawing. The yellow was more than a simple traced line. Kenzi had carefully shaded the color around the body, setting the figure against a background of light. “It’s almost like she’s glowing.”
Colin’s voice was taut with tension. “I think it’s the girl from my dream.”
“Oh! Rose, of course!” Natalya wished Kenzi had advanced beyond basic figures. She would have liked to know what the ghost girl looked like. “So she must be able to see her, too. I wonder if Akira knows that. I wonder if Rose knows that.”
“What?” Colin stared at her as if she’d sprouted another head.
She raised an eyebrow. “Rose? The girl from the other night? The ghost you saw when you were, well, dead?”
“What ghost?” Colin sounded completely confused. “What are you talking about?”
“Akira didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
The Tassamara gossip loop had fallen down on the job. Natalya had expected the details to be all over town within twenty-four hours. But perhaps since Colin was involved, no one had shared the story with him?
“The girl you saw the other night is a ghost. She lives with Akira and Zane. Her name is Rose.”
“A ghost,” Colin repeated. He blinked and shook his head as if trying to kick-start his brain. “Okay, right. I knew… A ghost? Really?”
Natalya bit back her smile. Colin had always been more skeptical than the average Tassamara resident. Maybe it was being the youngest in a big family. His siblings had teased him with stories about the town, true or not. It might have been why he’d followed in his father’s footsteps and become a police officer.
“We need to question her.”
Natalya blinked. Somehow that hadn’t been what she expected him to say next. “How do you want to do that?”
“I don’t know. A séance?”
“Those don’t work. We tried back when Dad was convinced the house was haunted.” Her father had been right that their house was haunted, but until Akira moved to town, the mediums and séances and ghost hunters had all been a big waste of time and energy.
“She must know something, though. Why else would she have been there?”
Natalya paused. If Rose knew any helpful information about Kenzi, wouldn’t she have told Akira? And wouldn’t Akira have relayed it? But maybe Colin was right. Maybe they needed to talk to Rose.Chapter Nine
“Yay!” Rose clapped her hands with delight.
“Akira doesn’t like being asked about ghosts. Zane asked us not to bring them up.” Tiny lines of worry creased Natalya’s brow.
“Pfft.” Rose waved her hand to dismiss that concern. “She won’t mind talking to me.”
She spun in a circle in the kitchen, not caring that her energy passed through the oblivious living people. She didn’t mind keeping the little girl company—especially not since they’d started watching television—but it would be nice to be able to talk again. To someone who could hear her, that was.
“Under the circumstances, I think she can make an exception.” Colin said, voice firm.
Natalya lifted a dubious shoulder as Rose paused in her twirl. Firm was the wrong tactic to take. Akira got stubborn when she felt pushed.
Colin glanced at his watch. “It’s early still. I’ll go visit her. It’s the old Harris place, right? Off Millard?”
“Yeah. But are you sure Rose will be there?” Natalya set down the drawing she’d been holding and picked up another one, her expression thoughtful.
Rose peeked over her shoulder. It was the one Kenzi had drawn earlier that day, of the three of them together. Rose didn’t think the likeness was anything to write home about, but she appreciated the thought.
She hadn’t known how clearly Kenzi saw her. In the forest, the little girl had followed Rose through hours of hiking and miles of wooded terrain. She’d never complained, never cried, just persisted, one step after the next. But since then, the little girl hadn’t seemed to recognize when Rose was with her except for the occasional moment when she’d stop and stare or quickly turn her head as if she’d caught a glimpse of Rose out of the corner of her eye.
Little kids often could see ghosts. Babies were the best. Rose would play with them, tickling their toes and making silly faces, hoping to catch a smile or even better, a full-fledged giggle. The older they got, though, the less likely it was they’d acknowledge her. Toddlers could mostly see her, but they couldn’t feel or hear her anymore. And a child Kenzi’s age shouldn’t have seen her at all.
“Doesn’t she live there?” Colin asked.
“Technically, I think the term you want is reside,” Natalya murmured. “Or possibly haunt, if that’s not rude.”
Colin snorted, as Rose laughed. “I don’t mind,” she said generously. “Not anymore.” Back when she’d been trapped in her house, before Akira came and set her free, she hated people saying the house was haunted. It meant fewer and fewer visitors over the years and Rose loved company.
“But more seriously,” Natalya continued, “don’t you think she might be here?” She tipped her chin in the direction of the picture. “Kenzi’s obviously seen her. There’s no setting on this drawing, no house or forest to give us a sense of place, but she’s put the three of us together. That’s got to be me, her, and Rose, don’t you think?”
“So maybe Rose is with us.”
Rose twirled again, delighted by the direction of the conversation. “Oh, I am, I am.”
“Huh. Interesting idea.” Colin rubbed his chin, looking around the kitchen. “What do you suggest?”
Natalya looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, in a louder voice, “If you’re here, Rose, can you give us a sign?”
“Help Wanted?” Colin suggested.
Natalya’s lips twitched, but she didn’t smile. “Trespassers will be shot?” she offered tartly.
“Now how hospitable is that?” Colin drawled, his grey eyes alight with amusement.
Rose looked from one to the other, her lips curving up. She couldn’t read minds and she hadn’t spent long enough with the sheriff and Zane’s sister to fully understand their relationship, but she knew that crack about trespassers hadn’t been directed at her. The sheriff knew it, too.
“If you’re here, Rose, you’re welcome to stay,” Natalya said. “But please let us know whether you are.”
“What are you expecting her to do? Start banging cupboard doors? Make objects fly around the room?”
“Dillon sends text messages,” Natalya told him, referring to her ghostly nephew.
“Oh, that’s so hard,” Rose protested. She’d tried, she had, but she’d never succeeded in replicating Dillon’s skill at controlling cell phones. Still, Natalya had only asked for a sign. Maybe Rose could manage some other feat? She was good at switching channels on the television, but only when the magic pointer was positioned correctly. Natalya kept hers in a drawer. It had been very frustrating. Rose didn’t mind the Disney Channel, but some Cartoon Network would have made a nice change.
With a pout, not really wanting to do what she was about to do, Rose stepped into Natalya. Standing on top of her, her legs lost in Natalya’s body, she thought of the worst, saddest, bleakest thoughts she could.
It took her a minute. Death, the obvious tragic thought, just didn’t scare her anymore. Not hers or anyone else’s. Sure, it would have been sad if the little girl died in the forest, but the spirit who’d sent Rose to find her was probably waiting for her somewhere. And Colin, why he’d practically been looking forward to seeing his parents again. No, death wasn’t scary.
Loneliness, though, that had power. Rose imagined herself still tied to her house, but without Henry, without the boys in the backyard, without Dillon or Akira or Zane, without music or television or visitors.
Natalya shivered, tugging the light cardigan sweater she wore closed, and tucking one hand into a fist by her neck.
“Is your phone ringing?” she asked Colin.
He shook his head. “Not a quiver.” He slipped it out of his pocket and thumbed it on, glancing at the screen. “Nothing.”
“Huh,” she said. “Well, maybe she’s not here.”
Annoyed, Rose tried harder, concentrating on the thought of a completely silent, completely empty world. Why, it was such a miserable idea she almost wanted to cry herself. Natalya couldn’t possibly miss that.
Natalya shivered again. “I might need to turn the heat on tonight. The weather must be changing.”
“A cold front came in,” Colin confirmed with a nod.
“Cold front! I’m not a cold front.” Rose stepped out of Natalya, shaking her head. “Ask for a sign, then totally ignore it,” she grumbled. What else could she do?
“Maybe we should ask Kenzi if she’s here.” Colin sounded dubious, even as he made the suggestion.
“Oh, don’t do that,” Rose protested, but Natalya was already shaking her head.
“Not a good idea,” Natalya said. She didn’t bother to explain herself, but Rose nodded in relief. Kenzi might be scared at the idea of a ghost haunting her and Rose didn’t want to give the poor kid nightmares. Colin and Natalya exchanged a long look before Colin dipped his head in acknowledgement, not questioning her decision.
“In fact…” Natalya glanced in the direction of the living room. “Let’s discuss this after Kenzi goes to bed.”
“All right.” Colin started to slip his phone back into his pocket before pausing. “I’ll call Akira, though, and see if Rose is with her. If she’s not, maybe Akira can come over, see if Rose is here, and translate some ghost for us. ”
“I’ll call,” Natalya said.
“I don’t mind.” Colin tapped at his phone screen, head bent. “She knows me.” Natalya shot him a look, but he didn’t seem to notice. “I know I’ve got Zane’s number in here somewhere,” he muttered.
Natalya reached over and tugged the phone out of his hands. Rose chuckled, saying, “Ooh, decisive.”
“Hey,” Colin protested, as he let it go.
Natalya pressed the button to turn it off and handed it back. “I’ll call,” she repeated.
“What’s the big deal?”
The look Natalya gave him was the same as the one Rose’s math teacher used to give her when she hadn’t done her homework: a steady gaze, head tilted, both reproachful and annoyed.
“Ah.” A slow grin spread across Colin’s face before he smothered it. Rose thought he might be biting the interior of his cheek to hold it in as he said, “Should I not be inviting people to your house?”
“In fact, you should not,” Natalya said. Her tone grew exasperated as she added, “In actual fact, I’d prefer it if no one knew you were at my house. Not my family, definitely not your family, and not the rest of the town, either.”
“Don’t think of it as a visit,” he suggested. “I’m following up on a case. That’s all. Of course, most witnesses don’t feed me dinner. I guess if I mention how delicious your chicken enchiladas are…”
He let the words trail off at Natalya’s glare. Pointing over his shoulder at the living room and the bedroom adjacent to it, he said, “I’ll just go, ah, check on how that drawing’s coming along, yeah?” Natalya didn’t answer as she picked up her own phone to call Akira, but as he turned, Rose heard him chuckle softly.
Natalya’s frown smoothed out when Akira answered. She took only a moment to get to the point. “Is Rose with you?”
“Hello, Akira,” Rose called from across the room. She didn’t think Akira would be able to hear her, but it couldn’t hurt to try.
She paused as Akira responded. Rose couldn’t hear Akira’s side of the conversation, but as Natalya began to smile, Rose drew closer to listen in.
“Ghosts disappear. They do. They’re around and then they’re not and that’s how it goes. But three days. And she didn’t say good-bye, she didn’t leave a message—not that I know how a ghost could leave a message, it’s not as if she could write a note. But the television’s never on, the house is quiet. It’s spooky. People think haunted houses are spooky, but a not-haunted house is so much worse.”
“She’s here, I think,” Natalya finally interrupted Akira.
“With you?” Akira’s surprise was clear, but she almost immediately added in a calmer tone, “Oh. The little girl. The one you’re still taking care of. That should have occurred to me.”
“We,” Natalya started before correcting herself, “that is, I’d like to ask her some questions and see what she knows.”
“I’m not sure how much help she’ll be.” Akira sounded doubtful. “Rose can be mysterious.”
Rose snorted. She would so be helpful. And she wasnotmysterious. But then her nose wrinkled as she thought about what she knew. Not a name. Not an identity. Not an address. And she wasn’t even sure she wanted Colin and Natalya to find Kenzi’s home. They might think their job was to return her, but Rose wasn’t convinced that was a good idea.
She was still puzzling over the question of what she would tell them after Natalya got off the phone and while she and Colin had a low-voiced argument about whether he could stay. Natalya wanted him to leave, promising to relay any useful information, but he insisted it was bad enough not to be able to communicate directly with a witness without playing telephone. Reluctantly, Natalya conceded the point.
Colin took a seat in the living room and waited for Akira to arrive as Natalya put Kenzi to bed. Rose perched on the arm of a chair and watched the expressions crossing his face as the two of them listened to Natalya talking to the little girl, first about pajamas and clean teeth and clean faces, and then the soothing up-and-down lilt of a bedtime story.
He looked sad, Rose decided. She wondered why. She’d only met him once—in the brief moments after his death—but she’d seen him around town many times. She’d watched when he arrested Dillon’s mom with a smooth and quiet calm, and when he sternly admonished a texting teenage driver on the street in front of her house. She’d witnessed his casual charm, the smile with which he greeted customers at the bistro, the warmth in his laughter when they joked about the weather. Sad didn’t seem to fit.
A quiet knock on the door interrupted her thoughts. Rose didn’t pause to give Colin or Natalya time to answer, rushing straight through the wood and into Akira.
“Ooh,” Akira protested, shivering, as Rose’s energy passed through her.
“Sorry, sorry!” Rose spun around. “I’ve missed you!”
Akira turned, too, and held her hands out as if she would take Rose’s in hers. “You need to learn to use the phone.”
“I need Dillon to come home so he can do it for me. That’d be so much easier.”
Akira laughed in response as Colin opened the door. “Oh! Well.” A glimmer of a smile spread over Akira’s face. “Hello.”
“Thanks for coming,” he said easily, beckoning her inside.
“They haven’t kissed again,” Rose reported from over Akira’s shoulder as she followed her in. “Natalya yells at him, though.”
“Really?” Akira sounded entertained. “Yelling? She always seems so calm.”
“What’s that?” Colin asked.
Akira shook her head. “Just something Rose said.”
Colin looked at Akira, his eyes narrowing and then a corner of his mouth lifted. “Grace used to call my ability to piss Nat off in two minutes or less my secret superpower.”
“Not the most useful gift,” Akira responded as Natalya emerged from the front bedroom, pulling the door closed behind her.
“Not really, no,” he agreed.
Natalya looked between them and sighed. “Colin is here working on a case, and that’s all.”
“She gave him dinner, though. Chicken something. It looked good,” Rose told Akira.
Akira didn’t say anything, but she looked amused as she took a seat on the couch. “So how can I help?”
“Rose was the first person to find Kenzi,” Colin answered readily, sitting in the chair across from Akira. “Anything she can tell us about where Kenzi came from or how she found her could be useful information.”
“Aw, how sweet.” Rose ran her hand through Colin’s tawny hair, her touch not disturbing the short strands. “He called me a person.”
“Rose,” Akira said, a warning in her voice.
“He’s cute. Not really my type, though. But they make a pretty couple, don’t you think?” Rose gestured at Natalya who still stood by the door.
“Rose,” Akira repeated, the warning tone a little clearer. Colin shifted in his seat, turning his head as if hoping to see what Akira was looking at.
“She should be nicer to him. He did die, after all.” Rose slipped away from Colin and joined Akira on the couch.
“Did he?” Akira asked, interest replacing the reproof in her voice. Colin relaxed as Akira’s gaze followed Rose’s movement away from him.
“Oh, yes,” Rose reported. “Dead as a doornail.”
“But he’s not now. Did you have something to do with that?”
“Hmm.” Rose blinked. “Maybe. I’m not really sure.”
Akira crossed her arms, looking exasperated. “You know, I warned Natalya you liked to be mysterious.”
“I do not,” Rose protested. “I don’t know what happened.” Akira might not believe her, but it was the truth. She and Colin had been having a pleasant conversation after his death. Maybe she’d been flirting a little, but she didn’t have many opportunities to flirt these days. And then the little girl did something and Rose’s energy went all shivery. Next thing she knew, Natalya was there and Colin was sitting up. She told Akira the story.
“Huh,” Akira said thoughtfully.
“What’s she saying?” Colin asked.
Akira shook her head as if to say it was nothing important. He opened his mouth as if to object, and she said hastily, “Tell me about the little girl, Rose. How did you find her?”
Rose sighed. Although she felt reluctant to share the details, she could tell Colin wouldn’t give up. He was going to find the little girl’s parents one way or another. She might as well give him what help she could, but she shared her reservations with Akira as she told her about the spirit at the hospital. Akira relayed the information, warnings and all.
Natalya and Colin exchanged a long look. “Not Hansel and Gretel, after all,” Natalya said. “More like Snow White, I suppose. Or maybe Bluebeard.”
“Yeah,” Colin agreed. The single word held a weight of sorrow.
Natalya glanced over her shoulder at the closed door to Kenzi’s bedroom. “She’s asleep, but…” She stepped away from the door, moving to perch on the arm of the couch next to Akira. “We should keep it down. I don’t want her to wake up.”
Colin’s expression was grim as he nodded.
Rose flitted up and off the sofa. She stuck her head through the wall into Kenzi’s bedroom, near her bed. The girl’s eyes were closed, her breath even. Rose popped her head back out and reported to Akira cheerfully, “She looks sound asleep to me. I’ll keep checking.”
Akira thanked her and then asked, “Was the spirit her mother, do you think?”
Rose shrugged. “Maybe. Probably, I guess.”
“Poor kid,” Akira muttered. “Seven is…”
“…too young,” Natalya finished the thought and put a hand on Akira’s shoulder, before moving to sit next to her. Both women had lost their mothers.
Colin turned in his chair to address Rose, but the direction of his gaze was off by a solid two feet. “Did the spirit give you a name?”
“Oh, look how polite he is,” Rose said approvingly. “Trying to talk right to me.” She sidled a few steps closer to the door so she could pretend he was looking at her.
“A name, Rose?” Akira prompted.
“She didn’t say.” Rose shook her head, Akira following suit.
“Can you describe her?” Colin asked.
Rose tried, but after a rattle-fire series of questions from Colin—height, weight, hair color, eye color, skin color, age—she could tell she was disappointing him. But she truly hadn’t noticed much beyond the woman’s desperation.
“Do you have any idea how the woman died?” Colin asked.
Rose thought back. The living people in the hospital had been talking, sometimes shouting. Could she remember any of their words? Nothing came to her, and she spread her hands helplessly. “No,” she admitted.
“I’ll check on all the deaths at the hospital,” Colin said, pulling a small notepad out of his pocket and making a note with a frown. “There can’t be too many in the right timeframe. We should be able to find her.” He tucked the notepad back in his pocket. “What about the spot in the forest where you found the girl? Was it near a road? Any houses around?”
Rose brightened. “I bet I could take you back there. We walked a long way, but I think I’d be able to find it again.”
“Great,” Colin said with enthusiasm, but Akira looked noticeably less excited.
“How exactly do you plan to follow a ghost through the woods?” Natalya asked Colin, arching an eyebrow.
“Ah…” He looked closer at Akira and winced. “I guess you haven’t been taking too many long hikes, huh?”
“I’m pregnant, not disabled,” she told him, putting one hand on her rounded belly.
“Would you be willing to give it a try?” The question was tentative, as if Colin was unsure whether he should ask.
“Sure.” Akira shrugged, but Natalya’s brows drew down.
“What’s wrong?” Colin asked immediately.
“I—” She shook her head without saying any more.
“Are you seeing something?” “Is it dangerous?” Colin and Akira spoke over one another.
Again, Natalya shook her head. Restlessly, she stood and paced across the room. “No, it’s not my precognition. And medically, there’s no reason a healthy pregnant woman can’t hike a reasonable distance. ” She turned back, facing them, crossing her arms over her chest. “But I’m worried. Something feels wrong.”
“Could it be Rose?” Akira asked.
“Hey!” Rose protested. There was nothing wrong with her.
“What do you mean?” Natalya asked, her hands relaxing but her arms not dropping.
“Some people are more sensitive to the presence of spirits than others,” Akira explained. “Ghosts can make rooms colder. Those temperature drops are a measurable physical reality.”
“Ha. Now you tell them.” Rose bounced on the sofa. “Tell them not to ignore me next time.”
Akira’s lips curved up. “I guess you experienced that already. But people who are sensitive to ghosts also sometimes have an emotional reaction to their presence. Sometimes it’s uneasiness or fear. Sometimes it’s warmth or a sense of peace. Rose is worried, too.” Akira gestured in Rose’s direction, even though the others couldn’t see her. “Maybe you’re picking up on that.”
Natalya didn’t look reassured, but Colin said, “We’ll be careful. We need to trace her family, but we won’t just hand her over to them.”
“Yeah, you better not,” Rose said with an emphatic nod that set her blonde curls to bobbing. “Because if anything happens to her, you better believe I’m gonna be haunting you for the rest of your life.”Chapter Ten
“I’m not going to ask him that, Rose.”
Colin suppressed his grin as he pushed a branch that Akira had passed under with ease out of his way. “I don’t mind.”
Akira glanced over her shoulder at him, her cheeks pink with the cold but her eyes bright. She’d been toughing out their walk through the forest with impressive energy. “You don’t know what she wants to know.”
He lifted a shoulder. “We’ve already established I don’t watch nearly enough television, my musical tastes are sadly narrow, and ghosts can’t read books unless someone turns the pages. Shouldn’t we be on movies now? How does she feel aboutStar Wars?”
When he’d met Akira at the parking lot Rose deemed closest to her entry point to the forest, he’d handed her a bright orange vest and suggested they talk loudly. It was still hunting season, and over-eager hunters had been known to hear scuffling in the leaves and shoot first, look too late.
The conversation had been stilted initially. Colin had met Akira before, of course, but casually, and knowing they were walking with an invisible person only she could see or hear was unsettling despite his desire to accept her ability with his usual calm. For the first half hour or so, Akira herself had seemed uneasy, reluctant to say more than pleasantries about the weather, the climate, and her upcoming wedding. But when Colin had made it clear he didn’t mind talking to Rose through her, the conversation had gotten much livelier. Rose appeared to be insatiably curious.
Akira listened, and then reported, “She doesn’t like the one where the kids die, but she doesn’t want to talk about movies. She wants to know…” She paused and glanced back at him again. As they’d walked, they’d been passing through scrub pine growth, mostly narrow trees with grey trunks and sparse boughs, but they were nearing the edge of the tree line.
“What is it?” Colin took a few extra steps and fell into place next to her as they left the trees for a white sandy path on the edge of the prairie, trees on one side, tall grasses on the other.
“She wants to know why you didn’t try to stop yourself from dying.”
Colin blinked. He hadn’t expected that. “You mean the other night?”
“At all. The other night or any time in the years since Natalya’s premonition. Why didn’t you—oh, I don’t know. Move to New York City and become a big-city cop? Give up police work and move to Antarctica? Most people fight death with everything in them. You let it happen.” Her words could have been accusing, but her expression held no challenge, only interest.
Colin raised an eyebrow. Should he mention she hadn’t waited for Rose to speak? Rose might have asked the original question but it was obvious Akira wanted answers, too. “I’m a Florida boy and a cop’s kid,” he said. “Never wanted to be anywhere else. Never wanted to do anything else.” His chuckle was rueful. “If I could go back now, I’d do it different. But at the time, staying made sense to me.”
“Why?” Akira asked without hesitation.
Colin stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and hunched his shoulders. He could tell her it was none of her business. But a part of him wanted to talk about it. And someday—someday if he got lucky—she’d be a relation, his brother-in-law’s wife, so technically his sister. Maybe he’d start treating her like one a little ahead of schedule. “Nat’s knowledge doesn’t come date-stamped. I didn’t know when I’d die, just that I would. I thought it’d be soon, probably real soon.”
Her voice softened as she said, “That must have been hard.”
Colin’s lips quirked in a wry smile. Hard wouldn’t have been his first choice of description. Horrifying, maybe. Devastating. He’d had plans and they’d all come crashing down around him.
“Mostly when she sees something clearly, it’s because it’s about to happen. Take finals. She could tell me an hour before a final how I was going to do, but a week before, nothing. It’s not exactly helpful to know you should have studied harder when you’re out of time.”
“And she never had been able to figure out our future. We both wanted a big family, lots of kids, but she’d never seen them. Never seen the wedding, never seen the honeymoon.”
“Those do seem like moments she’d remember.” Akira kicked at the sandy ground, staring down at it, not looking in his direction.
Colin could feel the sympathy emanating from her. He went on steadily, saying, “Sometimes her foresight caused the problem. This one time, she was all upset. She wouldn’t let me drive to school, because she knew I'd crash the car. I got a ride with my friend Jake and he crashed his car. She still got the phone call saying I’d been in an accident, but it wasn’t what she’d expected it to be.”
“She mentioned something along those lines. That sometimes her actions created the future she remembered.”
“If I’d driven that day, I would have gotten to school on time.”
“But you didn’t think she was wrong about your death?”
“I knew what she saw would happen the way she saw it. Maybe she didn’t understand exactly what it was or maybe she had some of the details wrong, but running away wasn’t going to change anything. We argued about it, over and over again.”
Akira bit her lip. “Is that why you broke up with her? Because you couldn’t stand the arguments?”
“No, of course not,” Colin protested, but Akira was looking at the path ahead of them, her head angled as if she were listening to Rose. “What’s Rose saying?”
Akira acknowledged the question with a quick smile, dimples flashing. “She says she thinks you like to argue with Natalya. Or at least to tease her.”
“Making up always made it worth it,” Colin said, his own lips tugging up at the corners.
Colin’s smile faded. “She deserved better. A husband who’d grow old with her, kids who'd have a father.”
Akira snorted. “I don’t think she agreed with you.”
His hands, still hidden inside his pockets, tightened into fists. “No. No, she didn’t.”
Damn it, how could he have screwed up so badly? Had it all been inevitable? But if so, what did that mean for the future? His future? Their future?
“I wonder if quantum physics can explain her ability,” Akira said. “Maybe it’s like Schrodinger’s cat. The rest of us have to wait until the box is opened to know whether the cat lives or dies, but Natalya knows once it happens. But not until it happens. Like a wave function.”
Colin made a noncommittal hum. He vaguely remembered something about a cat and physics but he had no idea what a wave function was.
“Or maybe more like a human tide table,” Akira went on, sounding dreamy.
“A tide table?” Colin shot a startled glance in her direction. He wasn’t sure whether to laugh or take her seriously.
“Imagine time is an ocean.” Akira waved her hand in front of her in an up-down pattern, simulating waves. “We’re swimming in it. Individual waves are unpredictable, but the tide’s not. It’s part of a pattern, controlled by the moon. Natalya and Max, they can see the pattern.”
“I don’t think Nat sees patterns,” Colin said cautiously.
“No, no, not like that. Obviously what she has is a perceptual ability, in some sense, like vision or hearing. But time could be predictable in the way that oceans are predictable. Natalya sees the currents, the tides. Not everything, but the path in front of her, even as her own actions create it.”
“Hmm…” Colin’s brow furrowed. Did Akira’s ideas fit with his experience of Nat’s foresight? Maybe.
“I’m not making sense, am I?” Akira smiled at him apologetically. “Sorry. I just love the scientific possibilities inherent in the things we don’t understand. It’s real mind candy, so fun to contemplate.”
Since leaving college, Colin hadn’t spent much time thinking about science. Certainly not for fun. But the reminder of school brought back a distant memory. He squinted, making an effort to recall the exact words, and then offered, “There is a tide in the affairs of men?”
Akira’s eyes narrowed. “And women, too. Did you just quote somebody at me?”
“You obviously didn’t have Mrs. Martinez for eleventh grade English.” The words were flooding back to him. Clearing his throat, he gestured widely with one arm in the direction of the prairie, and spoke. “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat; and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”
“Shakespeare?” Akira hazarded a guess.
“Yep. Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 2. One of the many speeches Mrs. Martinez made us memorize. I could probably do all of ‘To be or not to be’ and ‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks,’ too.”
“I never liked Shakespeare. Too confusing.”
Colin scratched his head. “Wave functions? Dead cats?”
Akira laughed. “Fair point. But do you even know what the speech you quoted means?”
“Sure,” Colin responded. “Fate versus free will. An opportunity exists—that’s fate—but taking it is up to us. Free will.”
He frowned. In a way, he’d done the opposite. He’d believed in fate, so much so that he’d given up his opportunities. He’d gotten trapped in the shallows, in a life emptier than the one he would have chosen. Damn it, if he’d known Nat’s prediction might not come true, he would have lived his life very differently. But her predictions had always come true before, always.
“Nice,” Akira said. “And pretty much what I meant. Our choices do matter. But there can also be an inevitability about the future, like the tide coming in on time every day.”
“But I didn’t die.”
“An earthquake hit,” Akira replied promptly.
“Rose-shaped.” Akira paused for a minute and then laughed again. She must have been responding to something Rose said as she added, “All right, so earthquakes don’t have shapes. But an earthquake can cause a tsunami, changing the tides.”
“Not permanently, though.” Colin’s lips tightened. He wanted to believe he’d been given a second chance. An opportunity to live out his life and die in a peaceful old age. But if he was fated to die young…
“Sometimes permanently,” Akira corrected him. “If a quake changes the geography of the land, the tides adapt. They flow around the new surfaces.”
“So fate’s fluid? Despite’s Nat’s ability to see what the future will bring?”
“Yes.” Akira gave a firm nod. “When you run into an ange—erm… into a spirit like Rose, all bets are off.”
“Into a what?” Colin asked.
Akira put a finger to her lips and then grimaced, squeezing her eyes shut as if she were responding to being scolded. She hunched up her shoulders like a guilty little girl. “I know.” A pause. “I’m sorry. Yes, of course I heard you.”
Colin tried to puzzle out what she’d said. When you run into an angerm? An ang—erm? And then his eyebrows shot up as he realized what Akira had almost said. A what? His memories were fuzzy, but he was pretty sure Rose had looked like a normal girl to him. But then what did he know about angels?
“I know,” Akira repeated. “No halo, no wings, no harp, not an angel, got it. But Rose…” She fell silent again.
In his front pocket, Colin’s phone vibrated. As Akira continued to listen to Rose, he pulled it out and glanced at the display. Joyce. He should take it.
With a laconic, “Yep?” he answered the call.
“Where are you, Sheriff?” Joyce’s voice held an impatient edge.
“Damn fine question,” he answered her. They’d been hiking for at least four or five hours. How far had they gone?
“Damn lousy answer,” Joyce muttered. “Did you forget your meeting with the accountant?”
Colin winced. Oh, hell. He’d thought his schedule was clear. He wasn’t supposed to be on duty today, which had meant a fine opportunity to follow up on a lead he had no intention of sharing with anyone in the office. It was Tassamara so folks were tolerant of the unusual, but he had a reputation for skepticism he intended to maintain. Talking about ghosts wouldn’t do it. “Ah…”
“How fast can you get back here?” she interrupted him.
“Not fast. I’m in the middle of nowhere.” They’d headed south, deep into the forest, before reaching the trail leading along the prairie. Within minutes, if they stayed on the trail, they should be headed back into forest, this time the deep, tropical growth that flourished around the springs and lakes. A road shouldn’t be too far away. Still, he’d need to call a deputy to pick them up. Their cars were miles behind them. “At least an hour, probably more.”
Joyce’s sigh held a wealth of exasperation. “As sheriff, you have responsibilities—”
“I know, I know,” he interrupted her in turn. He could recite Joyce’s responsibility speech by heart. He heard it every time he didn’t finish his paperwork as promptly as she would like. Distracting her was the only way to defuse her. “Have you checked the hospital records yet?”
“Of course.” She sounded smug, but less satisfied when she added, “But there are no deaths fitting the description you gave me.”
“None?” Colin didn’t understand how that could be possible. It was a hospital. People died at hospitals.
“You said female, aged between twenty to fifty, deceased within the last week. No one fitting that description has passed at the hospital this week.”
Could he have gotten the wrong hospital? The wrong age? “Anyone dead on arrival?”
“Not that I was told.” There was a pause before Joyce added, “I assume the administrator I spoke with would have been intelligent enough to tell me if so.”
“Let’s not assume that.” He glanced at Akira. He could interrogate Rose again, at least to check on the hospital, but he’d rather not do so while Joyce waited impatiently on the phone. “Check the clinics, too, and forget the age range. And expand our timeline. Make it ten days instead of a week. I want to know about every recently deceased woman in a thirty mile radius since before Christmas. I don’t care how many calls it takes.”
“How about I start with one call? The local health department will have death certificates on file for all deaths that occurred at least seventy-two hours ago.”
“Good, start there.”
“All right,” Joyce sounded agreeable, before she asked pointedly, “What do you want me to do about the accountant? He’s waiting in your office.”
Colin paused and thought. It ought to be a straightforward meeting. The budgets weren’t complicated. “Take the meeting for me. Let me know if there’s anything I need to know. Leave the paperwork on my desk and I’ll sign off on it when I get back to the office. You can do that, right?”
“Of course I can. I know the budget better than you do.”
“Yep,” Colin agreed cordially, ignoring Joyce’s tone. Getting her involved in all aspects of his job was one of the ways he’d prepared for his death. When the day came that he never made it back to the office, Joyce would have made the transition to a new sheriff seamless. “I’ll call when I know my schedule.”
He tapped off the phone call and stuffed his phone into his pocket. He’d been right about where Rose was headed. They’d entered the deep forest, one of the richly verdant areas scattered around the national park. Spanish moss draped from oak trees like grey shrouds over the deep green of the undergrowth.
Akira stopped. “Okay, we’re here.”
Colin looked around them. “Here?”
No distinguishing features separated this patch of trees from any other patch of tropical forest.
Akira nodded. “Rose says yes.”
Colin pulled out his phone again, calling up an app to check the GPS coordinates of their location. The numbers meant nothing to him. He frowned down at the screen, pulling up the map. Nope, still meaningless.
“Does Rose have any idea which direction Kenzi came from?”
Akira paused before shaking her head. “How did you find your way back here, Rose?”
They’d taken the ghost girl at her word that she could retrace her steps through the forest, but for much of the way, she hadn’t followed anything as obvious as a trail.
Akira blinked and her eyebrows arched upward, before pulling down as she asked, “Are you teasing me?”
Rose must have said yes because Akira smiled. “Seriously, though, how?”
“What did she say?” Colin asked.
Akira waved a hand. “She said she followed a rift in the space-time continuum.”
“She doesn’t really know, though. She felt pulled here and then pulled to where you found Kenzi. She could take us there if we wanted.”
“Why did you take her all the way there, Rose? There’s a much closer road to the south.” Colin crouched, eyeing the ground for signs of tracks or indications of human presence.
“She says that’s where Kenzi needed to be,” Akira reported. “Also to look under that bush over there. That’s where she first saw her.”
Colin followed the direction of Akira’s pointing finger and stood, crossing to the bush in question. No evidence leaped out at him. He looked down at his map again, sliding to enlarge it. Which direction would Kenzi have come from? To the east lay water, one of the ponds that dotted the forest, and to the south, a road led to the town of Sweet Springs. To the west, there was nothing but more prairie until the land turned back into pine scrub, and they’d come from the north.
The best bet was probably to head for the road and check out the area. Maybe she’d come from one of the closest houses. But he found his feet turning toward the east. The undergrowth to the south was tangled and dense. To the east, overgrown saw palmettos and cabbage palms clustered close together. A small child could have walked between the eastern trees easily, unlike the path to the south.
He ducked under the sharp-edged leaves of a palmetto, scanning the scenery, looking for anything that might provide a clue to Kenzi’s original direction. Nothing jumped out at him as he walked forward. The trees were much denser than the scrub pine landscape but typical of the tropical forests found around water.
Except… His eyes narrowed.
Those plants weren’t ferns.
He stilled, putting up an abrupt hand to stop Akira. She was still chatting to Rose, her light voice clear on the cold breeze.
“Hush,” he ordered in a harsh whisper, eyes searching for signs of movement, evidence of life.
Akira took a few steps forward, joining him. “Don’t we want to let the hunters know we’re coming?” she asked in a whisper of her own.
Colin pointed. “Not hunters who might be guarding their illegal crops.” Talking would make them easy targets if one of the drug dealers responsible for the patch of marijuana plants growing around them was nearby.
The forest wasn’t quiet. Colin could hear birds, jays yelling and the musical trill of sparrows or warblers, and leaves rustling in the wind. But nothing that sounded like human beings moving through the woods.
“Wait here,” he told Akira, planning to take a closer look at their surroundings. “Don’t get shot.”
Akira snorted, a sound suspiciously like a chuckle. “Better idea,” she suggested, putting a hand on Colin’s arm before he could move away. “We both stay here and let Rose explore. She’ll tell us if there’s anyone around and it’s tough to shoot a spirit.”
Colin glanced at her in surprise, feeling his lips relax into a smile. “Ghostly reconnaissance? Handy.”
“Rose,” she said, voice hushed. “Could you—okay. She’s on her way.”
The two stood together in silence for several minutes, Akira frowning as she stared in the direction Rose must have gone, Colin scanning their surroundings in quiet tension.
Akira’s sigh of relief was the signal Colin needed.
“Good?” he asked.
She nodded. “No sign of anyone. Rose found a campsite down by the water, but she says it looks abandoned.”
Colin didn’t let himself relax. “I’ll call this in to the rangers. They’ll send a team out to clear up the site and collect any evidence.” Shelby answered on the first ring. He filled her in, providing her with the GPS coordinates, before finally closing his phone.
Akira stood by, waiting for him to finish. When he did, she gestured toward the water. “Can we go take a look at the campsite or would that be like disturbing a crime scene?”
“Any dead bodies down there?” Colin asked, only partially serious. He hoped Rose would have mentioned anything along those lines before he called for help.
Akira shook her head.
“I think we can take the risk, then.”
The two of them walked through the marijuana plants, Akira in the lead. Colin would have preferred to be on point himself, but since he couldn’t see Rose, he took rear guard, inspecting the territory around them and behind them as they moved.
The plants were tucked under the trees, relatively far away from the water. The patch wasn’t huge, only thirty-five or forty plants. The growers might not be pros, just locals taking advantage of the forest’s relative safety. Growing pot in national forests was big business, but Ocala historically had less of that activity than other regions. Meth labs were sadly more common.