Principal The Curse of Misty Wayfair

The Curse of Misty Wayfair

Left at an orphanage as a child, Thea Reed vowed to find her mother someday. Now grown, her search takes her to Pleasant Valley, Wisconsin, in 1908. When clues lead her to a mental asylum, Thea uses her experience as a post-mortem photographer to gain access and assist groundskeeper Simeon Coyle in photographing the patients and uncovering the secrets within. However, she never expected her personal quest would reawaken the legend of Misty Wayfair, a murdered woman who allegedly haunts the area and whose appearance portends death. A century later, Heidi Lane receives a troubling letter from her mother--who is battling dementia--compelling her to travel to Pleasant Valley for answers to her own questions of identity. When she catches sight of a ghostly woman who haunts the asylum ruins in the woods, the long-standing story of Misty Wayfair returns--and with it, Heidi's fear for her own life. As two women across time seek answers about their identities and heritage, can they overcome the threat of the mysterious curse that has them inextricably intertwined?

Ano:
2018
Língua:
english
ISBN 13:
9781493417285
ISBN:
68cc4391-0cc7-4ee0-b8ac-74df5a3029f0
File:
EPUB, 615 KB
Baixar (epub, 615 KB)

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Praise for The Curse of Misty Wayfair

“The Curse of Misty Wayfair is a pitch-perfect gothic that highlights the extraordinary talent of Jaime Jo Wright. I stayed up past midnight gobbling up this mesmerizing tale and was sorry to see it end. Perfect pacing and storytelling. Don’t miss this one!”

—Colleen Coble, USA Today bestselling author of The House at Saltwater Point and the ROCK HARBOR series

“Stellar writing combined with stellar storytelling are rare. Jaime Jo Wright brings both in abundance to The Curse of Misty Wayfair. The intrigue starts immediately and doesn’t let up till the final pages. By weaving the stories of two women across time, bound together in a way they can’t explain, Wright has crafted a tale that will have you saying, ‘Binge TV tonight? Nah, gotta binge that story by Jaime Jo Wright.’”

—James L. Rubart, bestselling author of The Man He Never Was

“Two tales twist together into a story that draws the reader in and won’t let go. The Curse of Misty Wayfair is deliciously thrilling, with a resolution steeped in light and hope. Jaime Jo Wright wraps her writing in a genuine love for people—in all their gifts and challenges—and for the truth that sets them free.”

—Jocelyn Green, author of Between Two Shores

“Jaime Jo Wright does it again! The Curse of Misty Wayfair is a compelling and deeply moving story of two women a century apart entangled by a town’s haunting past. You won’t be able to turn out the lights until you’ve finished the last page.”

—Kara Isaac, RITA® Award-winning author of Then There Was You

Praise for The Reckoning at Gossamer Pond

“Brilliantly atmospheric and underscored by a harrowing romance, The Reckoning at Gossamer Pond pairs danger with redemption and features not only two heroines of great agency—separated by time, though linked by grace—but one of the most compelling, unlikely, and memorable heroes I have met in an age. . . .”

—Rachel McMillan, author of Murder at the Flamingo

“Wright’s newest offering is intoxicating and wonderfully authentic . . . d; elightfully shadowed with mystery that will keep readers poring over the story, but what makes it memorable is the powerful light that burst through every darkened corner in this novel—hope.”

—Joanna Davidson Politano, author of Lady Jane Disappears

“The Reckoning at Gossamer Pond is true to Jaime Jo Wright’s unique style and voice. Multilayered characters who intrigue the reader and a story the threads of which are unpredictable and well woven together make this a must-read for anyone who enjoys suspense.”

—Sarah Varland, author of Mountain Refuge

Praise for The House on Foster Hill

“Jaime Jo Wright’s The House on Foster Hill blends the past and present in a gripping mystery that explores faith and the sins of ancestors. . . .”

—Foreword Reviews

“Headed by two strong female protagonists, Wright’s debut is a lushly detailed time-slip novel that transitions seamlessly between past and present, leading to the revelation of some surprising family secrets that someone would kill to protect. Readers who enjoy Colleen Coble and Dani Pettrey will be intrigued by this suspenseful mystery.”

—Library Journal

“Jaime Jo Wright is an amazing storyteller who had me on the edge of my seat, turning pages and reading as fast as I could to get to the end of the book! The House on Foster Hill is a masterfully told story with layers and layers of mystery and intrigue, with a little romance thrown in for good measure. . . .”

—Tracie Peterson, author of the GOLDEN GATE SECRETS series





© 2019 by Jaime Sundsmo

Published by Bethany House Publishers

11400 Hampshire Avenue South

Bloomington, Minnesota 55438

www.bethanyhouse.com

Bethany House Publishers is a division of

Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan

www.bakerpublishinggroup.com

Ebook edition created 2019

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

ISBN 978-1-4934-1728-5

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Cover design by Jennifer Parker

Cover photography by Joan Kocak / Trevillion Images

Author is represented by Books & Such Literary Agency.





To my littles, CoCo and Peter Pan . . .

May you find your identity not in your past, your present, or your future.

May you find your purpose not in yourself, your family, or those who surround you.

May you know you were designed by a Creator, with great attention to detail.

May you know Him, and by doing so, know yourself.





But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be. . . .

Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House





CONTENTS





Cover

Endorsements

Half Title Page

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Epigraph

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

32

33

34

35

36

37

38

39

Author's Note

Questions for Discussion

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Back Ads

Back Cover





CHAPTER 1

Thea Reed

PLEASANT VALLEY

NORTHWOODS OF WISCONSIN, 1908

Melancholy was a condition of the spirit and the soul, but also of the mind. Still, she’d never seen melancholy claim a life and be the cause of a body laid to rest in permanent sleep. At peace? One hoped. Prayed, if they were of that bent. Regardless, as she positioned herself beside the corpse, boxlike camera clutched to her chest, Thea Reed found melancholy fascinating. For its persistent grip and the power it held even unto death. That it could claim a life was a horrifying mystery.

Memento mori was becoming less prominent in the photographer’s world, but the tradition still gripped those of sentimental pandering. Rose Coyle was one of those. A photograph to hold tight to as she posed beside her deceased sister, frozen in time as if they both still lived. Though tears welled in Rose’s eyes, her shoulders remained stalwart.

Thea tucked away the ever-present nudge of guilt. The idea she benefited monetarily from others’ grief. It was a morbid career she’d fallen into as a girl. A traveling photographer and his wife needed a helper, the orphanage mistress had told Thea. A decade later, she was now the photographer while her benefactors were dead. But what choice did she have? Only a leftover letter with miniscule clues gave Thea any hint of her past. While the enticements of who Thea Reed might really be had brought her here, to this town, Thea knew dreams of a future were something women with roots and ancestry concocted. Orphans played the hand they were dealt, even if that hand was ghastly at its best.

Thea cast Rose a glance from the corner of her eye as she carefully collected her photographic equipment. Rose was not far in age from Thea, perhaps only a few years older. Well, if one surmised merely by the porcelain complexion, the unlined corners of the brilliant blue eyes, and the crow black hair that swooped into a lustrous silken crown on Rose’s head. Thea shifted her gaze toward the other model, giving Rose her distance and allowing her the privacy to dab her eyes with a handkerchief bordered by purple tatting.

Thea flipped open the lid of the velvet-lined case that housed her camera. She paused before lowering her precious camera into its box. The deceased woman—Mary Coyle—was nowhere near as striking as her older sister. Mary was simple by comparison, and even in death, one could see that in life she’d been pasty next to Rose. Ash blond hair, dull due to the lack of life. Her lips a muted pink, her nose dotted with freckles that now had no hope of ever disappearing. Her body lay limp, propped into an upright position by the aid of Thea’s metal hanger that cuffed to the corpse’s arms and neck and helped her to stand like a mannequin one might see in Miss Flannahan’s Boutique four towns over.

A sniffle jerked Thea’s attention back to the living and squelched the thoughts that made her mind spin like five children’s metal tops whirling across a wooden floor.

“I’m so sorry.” Rose blinked quickly, yet the moisture on her lashes only made her blue eyes larger and more iridescent. Thea engaged in a twinge of inadequacy herself, but then she ignored it like the little devil it was. Her brown eyes and honey brown hair might be uninspiring next to Rose, but she had life, whereas—Thea finally rested her camera in the box—whereas Rose had grief.

“There’s nothing to apologize for.” Thea had no struggle infusing empathy into her voice. The entire afternoon had been dreadful for Rose Coyle.

“But the photograph . . .” Rose’s voice dwindled in a muted whimper.

Thea buckled the camera case. “The photograph will be fine, I promise.”

She hoped. Rose had been so fidgety that keeping her expression stoic for the time it took for the lens to expose to light and capture the image made it almost definite the photograph would turn out blurry. But, compared to a corpse, any live human being would seem fidgety.

Thea swallowed her observation. She was used to the morbid, the dead, but then the strange questions would come during heightened times of distress and mostly when she was disturbed. When ghosts lingered in the air, their skeletal-like fingers stroking the back of Thea’s neck. A taunt, mingling with a subtle dare to find them. Catch them. If only Thea could. Ghosts were never captured, or they would be entrapped in tombs with their bodies. No, their spirits roamed free, Thea had been taught. Some good, some desperate, and some—the worst sort—wicked and evil.

“Tea?”

“Pardon?” Thea’s head snapped up from her frozen state over her camera case. But her eyes didn’t meet with Rose’s. Instead, her gaze settled again on Mary Coyle, knowing she would need to detach her from the frame.

“I wondered if you would stay for tea?” Rose had summoned strength from deep within herself, it appeared. Tears had dissipated, though every ounce of composure could not hide the shadows that lingered under her eyes.

Thea nodded before she could consider, sympathy gaining the better hand over sound judgment.

“Yes. Please.” She bit her tongue. No. Thank you. Never mingle with a customer. It had been her benefactor, Mr. Mendelsohn’s instruction, and his wife’s sternly supported conviction. Thea usually heeded it.

Rose had already exited the parlor with a murmur. It was too late and too rude to decline now. Thea should have finished here, laid the burdensome body back on its temporary cot before the undertaker came to prepare Mary Coyle for her final rest and position her in a coffin. But now, tea it would be, Thea supposed, which only meant squelching the curiosity of Mary, her life, and subsequently her death, would be more difficult.

It took time, but eventually Thea had freed Mary from the trap of the photographic frame that held her prisoner. Laid and covered, Thea stepped back.

“I’m sorry life was such despair,” Thea whispered.

Mary did not answer.

Drawing in a deep breath and then expelling it slowly between her lips, Thea gathered her equipment. She moved to the parlor door, but that niggling sense—that feeling—gave her pause. She looked over her shoulder. Mary hadn’t moved. Of course she hadn’t. Nor had she spoken.

But oddly the black crepe shroud that covered a photograph of Mary when she was very much alive had slipped down the piano, onto its bench, and gathered in a filmy pile on the floor. Thea stared at the photograph. Not one sibling but two flanked Mary Coyle. All three of them smiling. All three children in adolescence.

Thea nodded. She understood now.

Mary had been happy once.

Before death had come to play.



Rose was kind—and chatty. Likely to avoid the suffocating weight of grief. Thea tried to be vague in her answers.

Yes, she was new to town. Yes, traveling photographers sometimes knocked on doors to inquire if a service was needed. No, she wasn’t here to visit any family. No, she’d never been this far north in Wisconsin before.

Thea cringed inwardly. It wasn’t particularly true. She may have been. As a youngster, before memories became firm images in a person’s mind. Just vague shadows. It was why she’d come north, wasn’t it? To clear the fog away from those blurred recollections?

Of course, she’d not tell Rose that. Thea preferred anonymity. For no other reason than that she was used to it, it was comfortable, and if asked to define who she was, she really had nothing substantial to offer.

Thea dabbed the cloth napkin against her lips. Rose met her curious gaze over the rim of her teacup. Sadness still lingered there, but Rose’s dark brow winged upward in question. Inviting and warm.

Thea accepted the unspoken invite. It was time to divert Rose’s polite curiosity with some of her own.

“I couldn’t help but wonder, I noticed you had a brother.” She didn’t reference the photograph she had re-shrouded before leaving the parlor.

Rose lowered her teacup. “We still have a brother.”

We. Poor Rose. Like Mary were still alive. There was no past tense.

“Simeon.” The name caressed from Rose’s lips gently, with a deep fondness that Thea couldn’t relate to.

Rose smiled one of those bittersweet smiles as she ran her fingertip around the edge of her teacup. “Simeon is my younger brother, between Mary and I. He is . . . special.”

Her interest more than piqued; Thea was also equally as anticipatory of escaping the gloomy atmosphere and driving away on her horse-led box wagon. She shifted on the hard wooden chair. The lace tablecloth caught under her leg and drew taut, making the china rattle. Thea made it her excuse for escape.

“Thank you so much for the tea.” Thea summoned every manner Mrs. Mendelsohn had taught her in their short years together.

Rose drew a breath, shuddering only a tad. “And the photograph?”

Oh yes. Business. Thea gave Rose an approximate date. She would need to find a satisfactory place to develop the plates. Her wagon was equipped, but barely. Finding an established portrait studio she could partner with was a better option. She wasn’t certain if that was normal, but it had been Mr. Mendelsohn’s way of doing business, and Thea was well versed in it.

Rose led Thea to the front door, the wool carpet runner beneath her feet silencing the footsteps that would have otherwise echoed on the scuffed walnut floors. Always observant, Thea noted the wallpaper was more faded by the entryway than in the hall, which made sense considering the windows that flanked the front door. Sunlight was sure to drain color from the paper roses. Thea drew her attention back to her client. Life had drained color from Rose Coyle. Only the sapphire of her eyes and the coal black of her hair and lashes saved her from being ghostly.

“My brother will give you your partial payment.” Rose hesitated, and her voice dropped into a wispy tone. “He’s good with numbers.”

“And I shall find him where?” Thea ventured.

Rose’s fingers flew to her neckline, fidgeting with the lace at her throat. The only bit of adornment on her otherwise black silk mourning dress. She seemed taken aback by the question.

“Your brother—Simeon?” Thea pressed.

“Yes.” Rose gave her head a little shake, but her eyes grew dull and vacant. She dropped her hand from her throat. “Simeon will be in his workshop.”

An uneasy sensation coursed through Thea. Not unlike the one in the parlor. As if they were being watched—as if Mary watched them. A common superstition but one Thea found immensely hard to shake.

She nodded, grappling for the doorknob. She wished to leave now. She had no more courage left to cast a final glance into the parlor, where Mary Coyle lay, and no bravery to investigate Rose’s sorrowing face again.

Thea’s fingers brushed Rose’s as they’d already turned the knob and opened the door. She snatched her hand away and edged past Rose, catching a whiff of perfume. Thea turned to bid Rose farewell, but Rose was already closing the front door, her face slowly disappearing as the crack between the door and frame shut.

Tiny bumps raised on Thea’s arms. She observed her horse and wagon. She could just leave. Avoid the special Simeon Coyle—whatever that inferred—and be rid of this creepy house and its inhabitants. There had been a tiny glimpse of fear in Rose’s eyes just as the door closed. Fear of her brother perhaps? Or something greater and more threatening than the melancholy that had wasted away Mary Coyle?

She needed the money. With that determination, Thea made her way over a stone path through flower gardens of summer growth. Chives with bristly purple blossoms, lavender bushes lending a distinct scent in the air, both calming and pungent, and a mishmash of wildflowers waving in the slight breeze. The path passed through a gate and then it was gone. Only dirt and patchy grass led Thea to the door of the shed, Simeon Coyle’s workshop.

Thea knocked firmly on the door. A sparrow fluttered above her and landed on the peak of the roof. It cocked its head to the right and danced a fidgety little waltz across the ridgepole. Thea met the beady eyes and didn’t miss the sparrow’s quick nod before it fluttered away.

Mr. Mendelsohn had believed spirits sometimes took the form of other creatures. Perhaps it was Mary Coyle giving her approval to stand before her brother’s place of work. Or, Thea blinked as the door began to open, superstitions shouldn’t be taken so far. Thea knew little of God, but Mrs. Mendelsohn had argued with her husband many times that a human simply did not return as an animal. It was ungodly and sacrilegious.

Much as Rose had closed the door, Simeon Coyle opened his. With a nervous suspicion in squinting gray eyes. Brown hair the color of tree bark straggled over his forehead in straight strands parted down the middle. He eyed Thea. Perhaps he’d not seen a stranger in his entire life? His eyes looked her up and down, until finally he opened the door enough for her to see his whole body.

Simeon Coyle did not step from his shed. Nor did he speak. His jaw was square, his shoulders lean with suspenders spanning over them, and he was only slightly taller than she. There was nothing remarkable about him. Nothing at all.

They stared at each other.

Simeon, waiting.

Thea, tongue-tied.

There was something about Simeon Coyle. His sharp, observant gaze conflicted with the hollow expression on his face.

She cleared her throat, trying to find her voice.

He blinked.

Thea stumbled back a step. She was losing her senses, surely! Yet she would vow there was an instant tugging of souls between her and Simeon Coyle, with inexplicable reason other than an innate comprehension that they shared something unspoken. Something yet to be defined—if they gave it opportunity.

“I’ve come only for money.” Thea’s words bridged the space between them. Words that eliminated the invisible thread between them that made no logical sense.

Simeon blinked, his face pulled into a scowl, making his one eye close like he was winking. But Thea was certain he wasn’t. Just as quickly, his muscles relaxed, and his expression returned to a quiet study of her. A movement caught her attention, and Simeon’s hand stretched forward. In his grip, a coin in half payment for the photograph. Thea reached for it, and he released the money.

Without another word, Simeon Coyle closed the door. The latch clicked quietly as he reentered his shed. But, Thea could not chase away the feeling that a door had also opened into the secret places inside of her, and Simeon Coyle had unassumingly walked right in.





CHAPTER 2

Heidi Lane

PLEASANT VALLEY

NORTHWOODS OF WISCONSIN, PRESENT DAY

A mortuary had more appeal than the cluttered aisle of the antique store. Heidi Lane edged around a dresser circa 1889 with a mottled mirror that returned to her a distorted image of herself. She paused, staring back at her eyes. Brown with edges of black. Monkey-fur eyes. That was what her older sister, Vicki, had called them, along with her childhood nickname Monkey. Perhaps one of the few semi-fond memories she had of her younger years.

The letter burned in her back pocket. She’d stuffed it there when she’d left Chicago for the drive north. Nine hours later, including a few stops for gas, pizza-flavored Combos, and La Croix water, and she was here. In a town new to her, but her parents’ and older sister’s home for the last several years. Heidi had never visited. Never desired to visit. Until the letter arrived.

She blinked, breaking her catatonic stare into the old looking glass. Mirrors made her nervous. Antique shops intrigued her, yet they also could be unsettling. At least in a mortuary, things stayed dead—presumably—but in places like this? Ghosts loitered in corners, under furniture, were released when one uncapped a cardboard hatbox, or reflected in old mirrors—like this one.

Heidi turned away. She reached for a teacup with a scalloped handle, a pink rose hand-painted down its ceramic side, and a little ledge built inside the cup to protect a man’s mustache.

“It’s a lovely cup.” The unexpected voice beside her gave Heidi pause, but didn’t make her nervous like the mirror had. She welcomed the sound, the company. It was pleasant to be around strangers rather than close family. People who didn’t know her, didn’t judge her, and didn’t care that Heidi covered her anxiety and lack of confidence with recklessness and impulse.

“The hand-painted roses are beautiful!” Heidi infused her customary friendliness into her response and squelched the uneasiness that had riddled its unwelcome path into her spirit. “It’s a mustache cup.”

A smaller woman stood beside her, hair cut in a wedge a bit too young for the age that labeled her face at approximately—Heidi considered, then took a guess—late fifties. She was classy, in a simple, small town, northern Wisconsin sort of way. In other words, blue jeans and a floral button-up blouse. But she seemed warm and welcoming. Unjaded by the bustling world of expectations beyond the Northwoods.

The woman studied Heidi with an authentic smile and a bit of surprise. “Not many people know that’s a mustache cup.”

“No?” Heidi tried to ignore the feeling that this woman was exactly what she would have wanted for a mother. One couldn’t make a judgment like that at first sight. Not to mention, she had a mother, albeit a much older one who’d done her best but still misunderstood every nuance that was Heidi. The letter burned a hole in her back pocket.

“I have a plate in the same pattern as the cup, if you’re interested.” The woman pressed into Heidi’s thoughts.

“Oh, no. No, thank you.” Heidi replaced the cup on the shelf. She’d ducked into the antique shop to avoid her sister, Vicki, who’d been striding down the sidewalk toward her. Heidi wasn’t ready for Vicki to know she was in town. Not yet. The sky would fall soon enough. Why not avoid it for a blissful extra thirty minutes?

“I’m not really shopping, just browsing. I have some time to kill.”

The woman reached out and patted Heidi’s arm. “Ahh. Well, let me know if you need anything.”

Heidi let her eyes graze where the hand had touched her. How long had it been since she’d been touched in a platonic gesture of motherly kindness? As a child she’d craved protective snuggles and cuddles, the kind a little one received from a nurturing mother or doting grandmother. Instead, she’d received a list of dos and don’ts, and the ever-cautious eye of a carefully guarded parent.

“Oh, wait!” Heidi snapped her fingers, the flash of her Fly Free tattoo on the inside of her left wrist reminding her to prepare for Vicki’s condescension when they finally met up. The feathered words wove between and wrapped their green-inked way up the inside of her thumb.

“Yes?” The woman turned.

“Do you have photograph albums?”

“Of course!” The shopkeeper brightened and waved Heidi toward her. “Come this way.” She hip-hugged between two counters with mint-green pottery and china dogs on top. “I’m so sorry for the close quarters.” The words were tossed over her shoulder. “I keep telling my husband to ease up on the estate sales, but he loves our weekend jaunts.”

Heidi gave her a reassuring smile before grabbing at a wooden rolling pin that began its descent off the edge of a porcelain wood stove pushed against the wall.

“I’m Connie, by the way.” Connie edged around a rocking horse.

There was no rhyme or reason to the store. Heidi flicked at the horse’s rope-hair mane.

“And you are?” Connie paused beside another bureau, this one mirrorless.

“Heidi.” No reason to provide Connie with her last name. She’d instantly connect her to Vicki, even if Vicki’s married name was McCoy. The family lodge and cabin resort on the lake was, after all, Lane Landings, the only getaway in Pleasant Valley.

“Well, Heidi. Here are the albums I have on hand for now.” Connie ran her palm over the worn velvet cover of one of the old albums. “Most people aren’t too interested in buying these, so my husband and I are less likely to pick them up. This one, and”—she reached for another album with a hinged clasp that held the cover closed—“this one, we bought at a garage sale here in town.”

Heidi nodded.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it, then.” Connie matched Heidi’s smile. “Let me know if you need anything.”

The next several minutes, Heidi flipped thick paper page after page. They were at least two millimeters in depth, with the cardboard pictures mounted beneath crumbling paper-framed edges. She wasn’t sure why she’d asked for photograph albums. Maybe because in a place like this, Heidi’s own sense of restlessness came to the fore. Piles of household belongings, once common everyday articles, were now displayed and on sale like artifacts of yesteryear. They didn’t belong anywhere. It was a feeling Heidi was all too familiar with. Looking at the photographs gave the antiques in the room purpose. It connected them to people who, now long dead, had once loved. Like hearkening an old-fashioned fairy tale, not of romance but of belonging. Identity.

Heidi turned the page and ran a finger across the face of a young man, his hair parted in the middle, clean-shaven, a boy really. His jacket was cut like a soldier’s. Impossible to tell the true color, but dark like a Yankee’s maybe? With big military buttons. Another page revealed a family photograph. Man, woman, two sons, a baby in a long, white nightgown, its sex impossible to tell since both boys and girls in that era wore dresses until toddler years.

It was as though the photographs sucked her into them. A time machine of sorts. Heidi’s heartbeat lessened in pace, her shoulders relaxed, and she tucked her blond hair behind her ears. Maybe she’d purchase this album. Carry with her the spirits of the dead and revive them in the moments when Heidi couldn’t find anything else to cover up her restless nature.

One more page. One more and then she’d buy the album and make Connie a sale. She’d return to her car, give Vicki a call, and let her sister know she was in town. Then she’d brace herself to listen as Vicki lectured her on how she should have come years ago. When was she going to grow up? She was thirty now. Thirty. They needed her to be responsible. Yadda, yadda yadda . . .

And the letter in her back pocket would explain why she’d come. An explanation Heidi had no intention of telling Vicki.

The page fell with a thud that might’ve sounded like thunder to a mouse but was a whisper to the ear of a human. The impact of its fall, the whiff of musty paper that slammed into Heidi’s attention, was a moment that stole her breath. Her gaze collided with another set of familiar eyes.

“What . . . ?” Her unasked question drifted down the overpacked aisle of the antique store. She stared until a coldness filled her stomach, edging its way up into her chest, until finally Heidi expelled her held breath. She touched the woman’s face. Pale and lifeless, but eyes open with an awkward droop to the lids. Painted-on eyes. Dead eyes. The woman was deceased at the time the photograph had been taken, and someone had taken a paintbrush to try to make her appear alive.

She yanked the open album off the bureau and hugged it against her chest. Looking around, Heidi maneuvered her way through the mess toward the front of the store.

There. Connie.

Heidi wished for another human’s presence now. Preferably a living presence. She dropped the album onto the wooden checkout counter with an unintentional firm clap. Connie startled, lifting blue eyes, her graying blond hair feathered around her chin.

“Is everything all right?” Her concerned expression roved Heidi’s face.

“Would you tell me what you see in this picture?” Heidi rested her finger on the face of the corpse’s photograph.

Connie frowned, studying Heidi’s face before dropping her gaze to the picture. “I don’t understand,” she murmured. “Did something—oh!” Surprised eyes flew up and met Heidi’s.

“You see it too?” Heidi pressed. A cold sensation came over her, not unlike a skeletal hand curling around her throat and starting to squeeze. She swallowed, feeling the pressure from the unseen hand. A ticklish curdle in her stomach. The one that hinted of panic before the actual panic set in.

Heidi swallowed again, this time accompanying it with a big breath. She faked a flippant smile to fool not only Connie but herself.

“This isn’t something you find every day in an antique store!” She framed it with a chuckle, but Connie’s eyes narrowed, her attention still on the photograph.

“Well, I’ll be.” She reached and turned the album. Connie leaned closer to the photograph, then pulled back. Her voice held the same disbelief that Heidi had coursing through her body.

“That is remarkable.”

“She looks like me,” Heidi breathed.

“Exactly like you,” Connie echoed her affirmation.

Their eyes met over the photograph. It wasn’t much different, Heidi assumed, than the fictional stories of time travel, having your photograph snapped, and then discovering it when you landed back in present time. Evidence of your time machine, your jaunts into the past, and the manipulation of the future by visiting days gone by.

Heidi closed the album. “I’ll take it.”

She had to. She possessed no such time machine. Heidi hadn’t traveled to the past and yet—she dug in her leather shoulder bag for her wallet—there she was, in the sepia-toned picture, complete with the tiny mole above the corner of her lip.

Connie took the credit card Heidi offered her. Silent, she wrapped the old album in tissue paper before sliding it into a brown paper gift bag.

Heidi slipped her fingers through the bag’s handles as Connie gave it to her.

A ghost had risen from the album’s pages, beckoned to her, and begged to have her story told.



“Here’s your room.” Vicki flicked on a light even as she raked fingers through her thick, straight blond hair and expelled a sigh that rivaled the exasperation of a mother of twelve. Only she wasn’t a mother and seemed perfectly content in her choice.

Heidi gave Vicki a sideways glance as she edged past her older sister. She hugged the antique photo album to her chest almost as a shield, but she was long past needing armor against Vicki. Or the rest of the family, for that matter. She could deflect the negativity by sheer talent now. At least she wanted to believe she could.

“Thanks,” she muttered. Vicki had a way of stealing joy, spontaneity, and outright life from a moment. Like someone sucking the air from a room. Heidi gently laid the album on the twin-size bed with its red bandanna patchwork quilt. Vicki was not going to steal her momentum.

Fly free.

The reminder flashed on her tattoo as Heidi waggled her wrist at her sister with a smile she hoped was both confident and impish at the same time.

“Love it here!” She spun with her arms stretched out, ignoring the momentary pang she felt at the look of disgust on Vicki’s face at the tattoo. Better to get it all out in the open right away, absorb the censure, and move on. “The room is legit.”

Actually, it was Northwoods all the way, which was a complete one-eighty from Heidi’s décor preferences. Quilt already accounted for, it had an unstained pinewood trim that went halfway up the wall and was bordered by stenciled forest-green pine trees. Black-and-white photos of the forest were framed and hung on the wall—regardless that looking out the window gave you the same view—and the furniture was also pine. Brad, Vicki’s husband, crafted furniture. He probably made the dresser, the bed, and the bench her luggage was already piled on.

“Thank you.” Vicki’s voice was tight. Her baseball T-shirt with gray body and red sleeves was casual, as were her jeans, though they didn’t match her uptight personality.

Heidi gave her sister a crooked grin. “So, I have another one too.” She flashed the Free Spirit tattoo on the other wrist like a brazen sixteen-year-old rebel.

Guess not much has changed.

Vicki raised one eyebrow, slightly darker than her hair. “I suppose there’s one on your lower back. And your inner thigh. What? Eagle wings or Chinese symbols?”

Neither, but Heidi nodded with a grin she was sure stretched off her face. She neared her sister and fingered hair on Vicki’s shoulder. “We should get one together. Sister tattoos.”

Heidi was kidding, but if Vicki were to surprise her and agree, Heidi would jump at the chance. She’d always craved Vicki’s approval—no, more than that—her acceptance.

Vicki huffed and spun on her heel. “For heaven’s sake, Heidi.” She stalked down the hallway of the main lodge house. The upper level served as the bed-and-breakfast and the bottom level as the main living quarters.

Heidi danced after her sister’s shadow. Okay then. So, no sister tattoos. Might as well make the best of it.

“So. Where is Bradley?”

“Brad is at work.” Vicki’s voice remained tight. She rounded a corner.

Heidi followed. “Is he still working as a mechanic?”

“Yes.”

Well, Vicki was chatty today. “And he still makes furniture on the side?”

“Correct.”

They rounded another corner and walked through the lower level’s family room. More wooden furniture with navy blue cushions. “So, how’s the resort doing?”

“Fine.” Vicki opened a door that led into the kitchen.

“Could I by any chance have a Dr Pepper?”

“Oh, stop it!” Vicki jerked to a halt and spun on her heel.

Heidi bit the inside of her upper lip to keep from smiling. She hadn’t lost her ability to get under Vicki’s skin in 10.5 seconds. She should feel guilty, but she didn’t. If being separated from her family the past several years had taught her anything, it was that she owed them nothing. She shouldn’t change who she was for them. She shouldn’t cease living just because Dad had, and she shouldn’t stagnate today just because Mom was losing her memories. Brad and Vicki had taken on the gargantuan task of running a lakefront resort with cabins and a lodge house in the economically deprived Northwoods of Wisconsin. None of it was her fault, and none of it should be killjoy enough to make life this undeniable pain in the rear.

Vicki’s glare softened a bit—not much but enough to make Heidi feel a tad guilty. Tired lines winged from the corners of her sister’s eyes. An age spot was peeking through any attempt with concealer to hide it. Vicki was forty-five. Vicki was . . . exhausted.

A pang of guilt made Heidi’s flippant smile dwindle. Okay. So maybe she was being a tad over the top and insensitive.

Breath blew from between Vicki’s lips. “I’m sorry. I’m not being very welcoming.”

Ouch. Heidi felt even guiltier now. She searched her mind trying to recall the last time she’d ever heard Vicki apologize.

Vicki gave her an honest stare. “I know you don’t want to be here, Heidi, which is why I’m also equally as confused as to why you are here. You’ve never come, never visited. Even when Dad—well, apparently funerals aren’t your thing. But, since you came, we need you. I need you. I need you to be with the family and do your part. I can’t run this place, take care of Mom, be a wife, and be a nurse four days a week at the clinic.”

Heidi didn’t say anything. She’d be a complete fool if she did. Once she’d graduated high school, she really had left them all behind. It’d been twelve years. She’d seen Mom and Dad twice when they’d journeyed to Chicago to visit her. She’d had distant conversations with Vicki on the phone. One or two visits when Brad and Vicki made it south and Heidi had the stamina to meet them halfway and tolerate a weekend with them. Christmases were phone calls, FaceTime, and a few visits from Mom after Dad died suddenly.

If Heidi were honest, Vicki may be uptight and no fun, but she was also a loyal daughter, predictable, dependable, and everything Heidi wasn’t.

Vicki ran her fingers through hair that looked like she’d washed it maybe yesterday morning. “Mom isn’t getting any better.” Tears glistened in her eyes. She blinked them away so fast, Heidi wasn’t sure she’d seen them.

“I know.” Heidi softened her voice. All glibness aside, Heidi understood this perhaps more than Vicki realized she did. Mom had dementia. Full-on dementia with a prognosis of life that went on for years, but with a mind that was shutting down, and fast. It would hurt Vicki more than it would hurt her. Her relationship with their mother had been rocky. She was the surprise child. The one who came late in life and sort of ruined the happy middle-age years.

Vicki moved to the kitchen counter and opened the fridge, pulling out a Dr Pepper.

Of course. Vicki would know Heidi’s favorite drink and stock the fridge to accommodate her. It was what she did. Notice the details, adhere to expectations. Heidi wanted to feel something—anything—that resembled being touched by Vicki’s thoughtfulness. But taking care of people was what Vicki did. Because it was her job.

Heidi took the bottle of Dr Pepper, but Vicki held on to it for a second, forcing Heidi to look her in the eye. Dark brown eyes like Heidi’s. Like the dead woman in the photograph.

Heidi shivered.

Vicki held her gaze, her exhausted eyes sharpening to a stern squint. “For our sake, Heidi, step up.”

Heidi tugged on the bottle and drew it toward her. Stepping up wasn’t on her list of talents.





CHAPTER 3

Thea

The tired, little northern town ran juxtaposed to its name. Pleasant Valley. It was neither pleasant, nor was it in a valley. It wasn’t unlike a funeral pall that had lowered itself over the town like a thick fog across an open countryside after a warm rain and a chilly night.

Thea was shaken from her visit to the Coyles. A simple knock on the door inquiring if anyone needed a family portrait, a memento mori, or even a single portrait for a lover. Traveling photography sales. Just as Mr. Mendelsohn had trained her to do. But the emotion of the afternoon was so raw, so very exposing, that it left Thea feeling unsettled.

Perhaps the Coyles were unsettling, but Pleasant Valley had its own oddities too. The one main street that split Pleasant Valley into two sides was just as peculiar.

“It’s the Protestant side,” the boardinghouse mistress, Mrs. Agatha Brummel, said and gestured toward the west. “And that is the Catholic side.” Her index finger tilted east.

Thea couldn’t help but raise her brows. The woman’s pointed chin jutted out from the froufrou of ruffles at the neck of her otherwise sturdy black dress.

“We’re all on good terms, you see,” Mrs. Brummel continued as she hitched up her skirts and beckoned Thea to follow her up a very narrow staircase made more claustrophobic by the walls on either side. “But, everyone knows a Protestant and a Catholic dining together over Sunday dinner are sure to argue. Doctrine and all, you see?”

Thea didn’t. But she allowed Mrs. Brummel to go on chattering in her reedy voice about the Virgin Mary, the Sacraments, and something to do with whether one baptized a soul as an infant or submerged the person in the nearby river as an adult.

The door to the room Thea was renting opened as Mrs. Brummel twisted the glass knob. It was tiny, with a lone window across the room overlooking the Catholic side of the street. Thea blinked to clear the idea from her mind. She wasn’t bothered by any predilection of association, so much as wished they’d all agree so she could make sense of how to determine her own eternal destination.

A bed extended out into the middle of the room. A small bureau, a writing desk, and a straight-backed chair were the only other pieces of furniture. A watercolor painting of a cow beneath a maple tree hung over the bed—the only warm spot in a room otherwise clinical and undefined.

Mrs. Brummel crossed the room, the heels of her sensible high-button shoes echoing on the rugless wood floor. She pushed aside plain curtains, her back to Thea. “Don’t let the Catholics intimidate you now.”

Thea bit her bottom lip. It would be funny if it wasn’t so very pathetic. “I’ve been exposed to them before,” she goaded Mrs. Brummel with her serious tone, as if it had been a traumatic experience when in fact it had all been quite pleasant.

Mrs. Brummel turned, her thin, mousy eyebrows raised over eyes holding little color other than gray. “Well, you know what I mean then.” She gave a curt nod.

Thea blinked away any humor that might have entered her expression and gave Mrs. Brummel back a very comforting, very conjured smile of shared opinion.

Mrs. Brummel returned to the doorway while Thea edged to the side, clutching her camera box in front of her. The woman eyed it, then lifted her gaze to Thea. “I assume you have a trunk?”

“I do.” Thea nodded. “My belongings are at the blacksmith’s in my wagon.”

“Ah yes.” Another curt nod of comprehension. “And rented a stable, I assume, for your horse. Smart young lady, you are. All these newfangled motorcars. Whoever thought it? A lot of good they are around these parts. Roads with ruts the size of valleys. Very well then. I’ll send someone to retrieve your belongings for you.”

“Thank you.” Thea offered a smile. The blacksmith was . . . she thought for a moment . . . oh yes, he would be on the Catholic side. Her curiosity got the better of her. “Pardon me, Mrs. Brummel, but may I ask what caused the town to divide into religious sects?”

Mrs. Brummel tilted her head to assess whether Thea was serious or not. Her lips pursed. “Pleasant Valley is the child community of the original logging camp that settled here in the late thirties. Before the war and most certainly before any of us knew who Lincoln was.” She waved a hand as if to silence her own wayward chattiness. “When Mathilda Kramer married Fergus Coyle, well, it was all rather a mess. Mathilda was the daughter of the man who owned the logging camp. Coyle was a laborer and very Irish Catholic. Kramer, being quite wealthy, preferred his daughter wed someone more suitable, but the business wasn’t stable enough at the time to risk an insult to his employees if a fuss were to be raised over societal standing and bank accounts. Kramer claimed it was all because Mathilda, who was very German Protestant, married an Irish Catholic. In any event, it still had poor effects on his employees and the town.”

Thea rested her camera box on the floor. “So, it has nothing to do with religion, but the fact that a wealthy man’s daughter wed an Irish pauper.”

The logic gave Mrs. Brummel pause, but then she nodded. “I suppose it does have little to do with the Catholics per se.” She waved her hand in the air again, dismissing the thought. “Either way, the town has always been on tentative terms and—” Mrs. Brummel cast a glance toward the window, then back at Thea, her eyes serious and penetrating with their stark sincerity—“and that is why the entirety of Pleasant Valley avoids the Coyles to this day.”

Thea reached up to pull the hatpin from her hat. “Fifty-some years later, Pleasant Valley is still punishing the Coyles on Kramer Logging’s behalf?” Her mention of the logging company brought a spark of admiration to Mrs. Brummel’s eyes.

“Well, not only that, I suppose. But also what happened after the marriage and throughout the years that makes us keep the Coyles at arm’s length.”

Thea rested her hat on the writing desk. “And that is?”

Mrs. Brummel’s lips stretched in a wan smile, and her eyes grew a bit colder, as if something awful had snuffed the warmth from the room. She lowered her voice to a hiss-like whisper.

“It’s the deaths, Miss Reed. All the strange dying the Coyles have had over the years. A stroke of bad luck, the superstitious say. Now, poor Mary. Poor, sweet Mary. We all know the truth.”

Thea swallowed, recalling vividly the Coyle home and the very recent passing of Mary Coyle. Funny how chance would have led her to their door, of all doors, to solicit photography services.

“A spirit haunts these woods, Miss Reed.” Mrs. Brummel raised an eyebrow that winged over her left eye like a crow’s beak. “Every time a Coyle passes, the spirit wails throughout Pleasant Valley the evening prior to their death. Half the time, no one even understands why they die, they just . . . pass away. Like poor Mary, God rest her soul.”

Mrs. Brummel walked through the bedroom doorway into the hall. She paused and offered Thea a grim smile. “They call the wailing woman Misty Wayfair.”

“W-Who is Misty Wayfair?” Thea couldn’t control the fearful stutter in her voice.

Mrs. Brummel’s mouth turned up on one corner in a sideways smile reminiscent of someone who knew a secret. “She’s the woman Fergus Coyle was meant to marry, but didn’t. They found her body in a well the morning after his first night with his new wife, Kramer’s daughter. Misty Wayfair had been strangled, they say, but that may just be the old story.” Mrs. Brummel’s smile dissipated. “Still, I would avoid the woods in the nighttime hours. Misty Wayfair likes to wander there.”

A grim nod. A lowered chin. A stern eye.

“And she is not a friendly spirit,” Mrs. Brummel concluded.



She wasn’t entirely sure how, but Thea found herself awake the following morning, dressed in her darkest gown of deep gray, and positioned on the buckboard of Mrs. Brummel’s carriage. The wheels carted them outside of Pleasant Valley, its springs bouncing them on the seat until Thea wanted to rub her backside.

Today was Mary Coyle’s funeral, Mrs. Brummel had announced that morning as she served Thea a bowl of oatmeal with a puddle of maple syrup in the middle. Very few from town would attend, she’d stated, being that Mary was a Coyle. Still, Mrs. Brummel had wiped her hands on her apron. It was Christian duty, after all.

Thea hadn’t denied Mrs. Brummel her company, although now she questioned the wisdom of it. Part of her had been convinced when they started out that a return visit would erase the unwelcome shiver that ran through her at the memory of yesterday. Of the dead Mary, the grieving Rose, and the indecipherable Simeon.

Now, as they neared the farmhouse, its narrow frame void of any angles or gables, Thea knew how very wrong she’d been to come. Her heartbeat quickened, her palms grew clammy, and for some reason every memory, both bad and worse, filtered unbidden through her mind.

Mrs. Brummel hustled toward the front door, which was perched open for visitors. There was no backward glance over her shoulder toward Thea, and it appeared she was content to let Thea fend for herself. “Miss?”

The deep voice just behind Thea’s left shoulder caused her to intake a quick breath as she spun. A tall man stood behind her, trussed up in a black suit, with a tie, a watch fob, and a bowler hat. His mustache drooped on either side of his mouth, his brown eyes sharp, with a bit of a John Wilkes Booth look about him. Thea figured that was not a complimentary comparison.

“Are you going in?” He extended his arm to encourage her to proceed.

“Yes.” A quick nod and Thea moved with hurried steps toward the house.

The man followed and was mere inches behind her as she slowed and crossed the threshold.

“Dr. Earl Ackerman,” he muttered in her ear.

Thea shifted aside and away from him. She met his gaze. It wasn’t inappropriate or overly bold, yet she was still uneasy. She refrained from granting him her name and nodded instead. Acknowledgment coupled with subtle indifference.

Mr. Mendelsohn would have been proud of her.

Thea entered the parlor, so familiar from yesterday. Mrs. Brummel stood to the side with two other women, their faces pinched, hands held by their lips as they murmured quietly to one another. She shifted her gaze to the casket. To Mary. Even paler than the day prior, the body now fully prepared for burial. Her hands crossed over her bosom. Her hair arranged in a curled pile on top of her head.

“You came.” A soft voice interrupted Thea’s perusal of Mary Coyle. “Bless you,” it continued.

Thea met Rose Coyle’s eyes. A sheen of moisture covered them, pooling in the corners. Rose dabbed at the tears with an embroidered handkerchief.

“Is it wrong that I-I will be rather thankful when this is behind us?” Rose’s admission might have shocked anyone else, but it echoed the very thoughts Thea had entertained many times over while learning the postmortem photography trade from Mr. Mendelsohn.

Thea gave Rose a reassuring smile. “I don’t believe it is wrong. I believe it is natural.”

Rose bit her bottom lip. Her eyes shifted about the room, timid of those who’d come to pay their respects. She leaned into Thea. “They all believe something is amiss. It’s why they’re here. Curiosity. As if we were a mystery to solve.”

“Are you?” Thea asked, before she stopped to think. She covered her mouth with her fingers. “I’m so sorry,” she breathed.

“I don’t know.” Rose’s voice was watery, with a wary edge to it as she glanced toward Dr. Ackerman, who stood over Mary, hat in hands. “We are Coyles, and Coyles have always been . . . cursed, I suppose.”

“Not cursed.” Dr. Ackerman had somehow overheard. He neared them, his eyes fixed on Rose’s face with familiarity. “You are a story that people cannot leave unread, when it is simply none of their business to begin with.”

For a moment, Thea’s opinion of the man swayed toward appreciation. He sounded appropriately offended by the guests milling about, sampling Rose’s plated baked goods, and whispering.

“There is no story but sadness and grief.” Rose’s lip trembled. She looked between Thea and Dr. Ackerman. “It is a dark and desperate world that Mary lived in.”





CHAPTER 4

She had to leave, to get away. The walls were closing in on her with a suffocating persistence.

“Take the pictures,” Mr. Mendelsohn had always instructed, “and then leave.”

Get away. Before you become a part of the deceased’s story, tied to the family with emotional threads that became more entangled the longer you mingled.

Thea pushed past a couple entering the Coyle home, curiosity etched onto their faces with the boldness of an onlooker visiting a circus. Here to ponder the freaks, the objects of rumor and mystery. There was no grief, no empathy, and certainly no genuine condolences. The Coyles were alone.

Tears were not what Thea battled as she hurried down the stone path between the lavender and the wildflowers. It was an ache, sharp and dull at the same moment. Poignant right now, but a foe she’d long held hands with and grown used to its insistent throb. It was the emptiness forged from the moment she’d watched her mother walk away, never to return. Those persistent questions Who am I? Why am I alone? that dogged her soul. Watching anyone aimless and unclaimed, staring after a person who’d left them, upon whom they’d relied, loved, needed—

The collision was hard. Hard enough to cause him to stumble backward, instinctively reaching for her arms but slamming them against his shed. Thea’s body pressed against his, stunned by the impact of running into Simeon Coyle with the force of a woman fleeing her own demons.

It was a long moment, silent and strange. His narrowed gray eyes searching deep into hers, the edges crinkled in study as though he wasn’t surprised by the collision at all. His hands embraced her upper arms with a firm grip, and he made no motion to push her from him, from the breadth of his chest, from the wisp of air that separated their faces.

“You’re not all right,” Simeon Coyle observed. The low tone of his voice, rusty and rarely used, sent shivers down her spine even as Thea sensed herself meld even closer to him.

She was dizzy.

Caught off guard.

She was hypnotized by a man who hibernated in a shed. Locked away like someone with no senses.

“I’m fine,” Thea breathed.

Simeon Coyle blinked. Long lashes dusted his chiseled cheekbones before raising again.

“You’re shaking,” he stated, studying her face.

“Yes. No—I’m fine.” Warmth spread through her. The curiosity of leaning against a man’s chest, smelling the cinnamon on his breath, stunned her. Now, reality began to penetrate her stupor, and she struggled to push away from him.

He released her.

“I’m sorry.” Thea smoothed her dress, staring down at her shoes in embarrassment and not much different had they been caught stealing kisses behind a woodshed.

There was no answer, but she could hear him breathe.

“I’m sorry also for your loss,” she added, lifting her eyes.

He offered an awkward, sad smile, as if unsure how to accept condolences. His eyes shifted toward the house, toward the gawkers come to stare at his dead sister’s body.

Thea backed away another step.

Simeon didn’t follow her. Instead, he seemed to consider the house, the funeral, and all it implied. His hand reached for the door to his shed, and he opened it.

Before Thea could react, before she could say a word to keep him before her, to offer her companionship to the house or express more condolences, Simeon disappeared into the shed.

The door closed.

Firm.

It was a stunning shift from the concerned man who’d held her against him just moments before to a man whose lost expression was a perfect mirror of her own.



The letter stared up at her, the scrolling penmanship staggered and wavy, indicative of the author’s shaky hand. Thea was already more than a bit disturbed by Mrs. Brummel’s ghost story of yesterday—this Misty Wayfair, a wandering spirit—and her discomforting time at Mary Coyle’s funeral. Why she tortured herself by slipping the well-read letter from her valise and opening it, Thea couldn’t explain. It was a repeated torture, almost addictive in its picking at the pain while reviving a thin splinter of hope. There would be no comfort in the words, no solace. Only fuel to continue the slow, ever-present coals smoldering in her soul.

“You were twelve.”

Those three words split Thea’s life into two broken halves. Life before the Mendelsohns and life after. She perched on the edge of the bed in the stark boardinghouse room, her weight causing the mattress to sag.

“It was our Christian duty to take you.”

Her eyes skimmed the words. At twelve, the Mendelsohns had whisked her from the only home she could recall, and her new life had begun.

A nervous prick traversed with rapidity up Thea’s spine as she folded the last letter from Mrs. Mendelsohn—a letter she’d found after the woman died—and jammed it back into her valise. Her breaths coming in short, quick sniffs, Thea bolted from the bed to the washbasin on the stand by the bureau. Lifting the heavy, white crock, she poured tepid water into the matching bowl.

She splashed water on her face. The wetness jolted Thea from thoughts that trapped her in a spiral of remembrances. Tugging her downward, threatening to become more alive than Misty Wayfair’s spirit. More alive than her own rapidly throbbing heart.

Thea turned to the mirror on the bureau, its edges blackened with age, the oak frame that held it in place scrolled and swooped around it. Water dripped down her cheeks. Deep, brown eyes stared back at her. She was Dorothea Reed. That was, for the most part, all she knew. Thea reached up and pushed light brown hair away from her face. Straight hair, unimpressive and mousy, barely held in place by pins.

Mrs. Brummel might be worried that Thea would unintentionally encounter Misty Wayfair in the forest. But Thea knew the only one whose soul she ever questioned was that of a woman who shared her features. A vague, blurry image in Thea’s mind. A feminine voice with no distinguishable tone. Perhaps kind, perhaps not. But the one who’d given Thea her name, Dorothea, and left her on the steps of the orphan home. She was why Thea had come to Pleasant Valley, after all. To find her, or to lay her to rest for good.

Most people did not wish their mother dead. But Thea did. More than anything she’d ever wanted. She wished to lay the woman to rest along with the questions, the betrayal, and worst of all, the series of circumstances her mother had put into play the day she left a little girl to sit on a stair and then walked away.





CHAPTER 5

Heidi

The lodge house for Lane Landings rose two stories, was built of log, and had as many angles and crevices as a creative architect could draw into its blueprints. Heidi padded across the wood floor and into the kitchen. The expanse of three broad windows over the sink revealed a view of the lake, bordered by pine and oak trees with maples and poplar dotting in and out amongst them. She paused for a moment to take it all in before turning to the Bunn coffeemaker and tugging the pot from its warmer.

Heidi liked her coffee black, though something about the Northwoods brought out the cozy in her. She adjusted a red-and-navy plaid blanket she’d wrapped around her shoulders like a shawl and retrieved heavy whipping cream from the stainless-steel fridge. Creamy goodness swirled in the Costa Rican blend, and as she lifted the pottery mug to her lips, Heidi wondered briefly if Heaven might be a little bit like this.

She slid onto a barstool. Taking another sip of her coffee, she tugged the letter from her flannel pajama bottom’s pocket.

The handwriting was shaky across the front of the envelope. Heidi ran a finger across it, as if somehow by doing so it would revive old memories long repressed. Memories she would want to remember, instead of the ones she tried to forget.

Heidi Loretta Lane.

Her name in the address field was formal, and she could remember hearing her mother call it with that stern edge in her voice. Loretta Lane. The woman she was named after. Heidi stared at the Return to corner of the envelope.

L. L.

Briar Ridge Memory Care

Pleasant Valley, WI

Years with barely a word from her, and then the letter had shown up in Heidi’s mailbox. Cryptic. Almost desperate.

“Please. You must come.”

So she had. Out of obligation, some concern, and definitely curiosity. Why dementia-ridden Loretta Lane wanted her here in Pleasant Valley was a mystery.

“I’m heading into town.” Vicki’s strident voice matched the pace of her march into the kitchen.

Flustered, Heidi jammed the envelope and its contents back into her pocket.

Vicki didn’t seem to notice Heidi’s sneaky gestures as her hand burrowed in a blue canvas tote on the counter that was crammed with junk mail, rubber bands, odds and ends, and—interesting—Vicki pulled out a ring of keys. It was an unorganized place for her typically systematic sister.

Heidi quirked an eyebrow at her frazzled sibling. Vicki jammed the keys into her purse and shot a stern look toward Heidi.

“We’ve got new boarders for Cabin Two coming in at ten a.m. for early check-in. Brad cleaned it last night, but I need you to take towels over there. Four bath, two hand, and two washcloths.”

Heidi took a sip of her coffee and watched her sister over the rim of the mug.

Vicki continued as she swiped some renegade papers from the opposite counter and stuffed them in her purse. “The boarders upstairs in the main lodge will need new towels. I typically deliver them after lunch and pull the dirty ones. Think you can handle that?”

Heidi bit back a smile and raised her mug. “Towel duty. Got it.”

Vicki froze and eyed her. The assessment was accompanied by a sigh through her nose. “You should visit Mom too.”

“I will.” Infusing a chipper nonchalance into her voice was what Heidi did best.

Vicki blinked. “When I get back tonight, I’ll take you through the ins and outs of running day-to-day chores for the lodge.”

“Capeesh.” Heidi sipped more coffee, leaning against the counter on her elbows and staring out the windows at the view.

Vicki paused, eyed Heidi once more for good measure, and frowned.

“Go!” Heidi smiled, trying to add warmth to her eyes, anything to get her sister to feel reassured enough to leave. “I’ve got the towels.”

“Fine.” Vicki spun and headed out of the open kitchen to the front door. She paused, her hand on the knob, and attempted a smile. “Mom will be happy to see you, you know.”

“I know.” Heidi nodded.

The door closed.

If Mom remembered her. Heidi blinked fast to push back renegade moisture in her eyes. She didn’t want to be here. To be with family, to run a lodge, to be reminded whether by frank words or inference that she always fell just short. Like the prodigal son compared to his perfect older brother.

Heidi cleared her throat, her voice echoing in the empty room. She needed to get busy so she didn’t think too much. Easy morning chores for Vicki and then she’d reread the letter Mom had penned to her. Every single nonsensical word that ended with her plea for Heidi to come.

Returning to her room, she slipped on a pair of black leggings and a buffalo-checked flannel shirt. Socks, knee-high wine-colored boots to offset the red-and-black shirt, and she felt her confidence growing. A few minutes in the bathroom fixed her face, lip gloss, mascara, and a bit of chocolate eyeliner to emphasize her eyes. Hair? Check. It was straight and colored golden blond with the tips dipped in royal blue. She’d seen Vicki eyeing her hair last night. It was well dyed, professional and classy, but the blue? Heidi ran a brush through it before fingering in some styling paste to give it texture. Vicki probably wasn’t a fan of the blue any more than she was a fan of the tattoos.

Heidi exited the attached bathroom and grabbed her cellphone from the nightstand. She hesitated. The photo album beneath her phone stared up at her and seemed to beg to be opened again. A small shiver wrestled Heidi’s body. What was normally compelling now gave her pause. Then again—Heidi reached for the album—maybe she’d overreacted yesterday. Maybe Connie Crawford had as well. A postmortem photograph from the early 1900s couldn’t possibly be her mirror image. Not if one really looked close.

She sank onto a chair and opened the musty volume. The moment she did, Heidi could almost sense the souls of the dead rising from the pages, whispering in her ear, floating about the room, pleading to have their lives rediscovered.

“Stay dead,” Heidi whispered, then laughed at herself. She wasn’t superstitious. Being raised in a very Christian home, with Dad being a pastor and Mom a church secretary, there wasn’t much room for considering ghosts as legit human spirits. Still . . . Heidi ran fingers over the two-toned photograph of a middle-aged woman in starched silk. Still, they had stories. At one time, they had lived, hoped, dreamed, wept, and laughed. Moments lost in the funnel of time. Tiny granules of sand that fell and were lost.

She turned to the page with her supposed doppelgänger. Again, as before, Heidi’s breath was snatched away. She sucked in more oxygen as she studied the photograph. There were actually two women in the picture, though Heidi had been so distracted yesterday she’d hardly looked at the one. The woman to the left—who was very obviously alive by the life in her eyes—was a raven-haired beauty. Thick lashes, perfectly curved lips, iridescent eyes. Beside her, the dead woman with painted-on eyes.

There was no mistaking the similarities. Heidi studied it, even reaching for her cellphone and flicking on its flashlight, though her bedroom was already filled with daylight. Yes. The hair appeared to be the same color as hers, sans hair dye, a mousier blond. The eyes, a perfect almond-shaped imitation. A heart-shaped face with high cheekbones, narrow chin, and full lips. The mole. Heidi leaned closer. It was . . . phenomenal. She really was the woman in that picture! Minus the lifeless face, of course, the pasty skin, and the slightly tilted head that gave her a bit of a zombie-like aura.

Heidi reached between the delicate paper-page frame that held the cardboard photograph in place. She gently tugged it out. The photograph’s footer was simple, the words scrolled in antique print.

Amos Bros. Photography

Pleasant Valley, WI, 1908

Interesting. It was a local photograph. Heidi scrunched her face, recalling the conversation with Connie Crawford. Yes, she’d mentioned going to estate and garage sales.

Heidi flipped the photo over. A feminine script was scrawled on the back of it, as if whoever had owned the photograph saw fit to record details in the event time attempted to erase them.

Dorothea Reed — photographer

Misty Wayfair

She ran her index finger over the faded ink. Misty Wayfair. Perhaps the name of the dead woman in the photograph? Or the living? Misty was a rather odd name for the turn of the century, but then what did she know? Heidi turned the picture back so she could stare into the dead features of her Edwardian look-alike.

“Are you Misty?” Her whisper broke the silence.

Heidi waited, even though she knew the woman wouldn’t answer. Wouldn’t say “yes” with applause for being identified, or shriek in protest and deny the name as hers.

There was no answer.

Only the ticking of the wall clock, the sound of a dehumidifier in the hall kicking in, and—

Heidi’s eyes lifted. Sensing she was being watched. The hairs on her arms prickled. A coolness settled over her, chilled from the awareness of being very alone and yet, not alone at all. She cast glances into the corners of the bedroom, as if an apparition might appear and renounce everything Heidi had ever believed about the nonexistence of ghosts.

She tucked the photograph between the pages, not bothering to insert it back into its paper frame. The album closed with a thud. Heidi stood, clutching it.

Where are you?

She glanced toward her open bedroom door. The hallway was lit, and daylight was not a friend to ghosts. And yet Heidi knew she was not alone. She took a step forward, then froze.

The window.

A woman at the window with massive dark eyes hollowed further by huge shadows beneath them. Her head tilted to the side, watching. Watching her.

Heidi’s scream ripped from her throat, gargled like she was being strangled. Not unlike waking from a nightmare mid-scream and clawing at the air to rake fingernails across the face of an imaginary foe.

The album dropped from her hands.

It was all in slow motion. The album falling to the floor. The photograph floating from its pages and sliding across the carpet. Heidi’s second attempt at a scream. And suddenly, it was all over.

The woman had vanished, as though she’d never been there.

Heidi stood shaking in the middle of the room, her arms wrapped around her body.

She looked down. Down at the lifeless woman in the photograph. The woman who looked just like her. The woman who had stood outside her window, soulless eyes peering in.



Heidi pressed the gas pedal down as she pulled away from the lodge. She glanced behind her, thoroughly convinced the woman in the window was chasing her down the curved driveway, screaming with a gaping mouth in a chasm so large an unsuspecting victim could fall into it and never return. Thick forest rose on either side of the drive, unwelcoming to the sunlight that tried to pierce through and warm the earth. She paused only a moment at the end of the drive before turning toward town.

A mile down the road, the clunk-clunk sound coming from a back rear tire alerted Heidi to more problems.

“For all that’s holy and sane and great dane!” Heidi had learned creative cussing from her father, who thought darn was enough to blacklist a person’s soul. She pulled the car onto the shoulder and switched on her hazard lights. Heidi jumped out of the vehicle and rounded it. She couldn’t see anything at the back—at least nothing obvious to indicate the source of the clunking sound. Hopping back in, she unhooked her iPhone from its clip on the dash and speed-dialed.

She’d seen her brother-in-law, Brad, for all of five minutes last night. Good thing he liked her and was a mechanic. After an assurance either he or someone would be out to meet her to take a look and give her a tow if needed, Heidi settled in her car to wait.

Alone.

On the side of the road.

She flicked the locks.

On retrospect, she should have called the cops. But then the woman had vanished. Completely. She’d simply been there one moment and evaporated the next. You couldn’t call the police on a ghost, and, assuming logic prevailed and it wasn’t a ghost, the woman had done nothing wrong besides peek in her window.

Heidi blew a breath through her lips. It was probably a lodge guest. Wondering where their towels were. The ones Heidi hadn’t bothered to swap out in her mad dash to leave it all behind.

She glanced into the woods through the passenger side window, then through the driver’s side window at the woods on the other side of the road. Maybe this was why she preferred Chicago. A person could see there. Buildings, public transportation, huge billboards, and lights. It was occupied by humanity. Here, it was just trees and trees and more trees, with patches of small fields in between them. Like little glimmers of openings before being suffocated by woods again.

Movement at the corner of her eye startled her. Heidi stiffened, staring into the trees. She sagged with relief. A tawny doe stepped from the woods, her eyes huge. Behind her, a gangly fawn, spots dotting its fur like a paintbrush had slapped on white paint. Heidi shifted in her seat, and the doe caught sight of her movement. With a bound, she darted across the road, her fawn scampering behind her, long legs tripping and skidding as it went.

More silence, and then finally, ahead in the distance, a pickup truck heading her way. Heidi was sure it was Brad, until it came closer into view. A gray Silverado, its front fender rusted where it was dented. It pulled to the side of the road, the hood of the truck nose to nose with the hood of Heidi’s much smaller Honda Civic.

The man in the driver’s seat was not her brother-in-law. Heidi rechecked the locks as she surveyed the forms through the truck’s windshield. Odd. A yellow tabby cat perched on the dash, more of a kitten really, its yellow eyes studying her as intently as Heidi studied it. The driver’s side door opened, and before the human could descend from the vehicle, a dog leaped out. A long-haired mutt that looked to be a cross between a collie and maybe a German shepherd?

Oh heavens. The dog was missing an eye!

Heidi sank lower in the seat. What was wrong with this place? Ever since she’d set foot in Pleasant Valley, everything was just off.

A man stepped out from the truck. Work boots, greasy jeans, a black T-shirt with a dingy gray flannel shirt left unbuttoned over it. Baseball cap so filthy it looked like he’d dipped it in an oilcan before putting it on his mahogany-brown hair. Stubble all over his unkempt face, and eyes—oy! The steel gray eyes—Heidi didn’t know whether to melt or be terrified. The man could be no less than six-foot-two with the build of a logger. There was no smile on his face. He was impassive.

Heidi yelped as his fingers rapped on her window. He bent at the waist and peered in. She peered back.

“How about you open your window?” His bland statement was more of a no-duh command. He didn’t seem amused.

Heidi turned her car key so the battery sprang to life and she could roll down her window an inch. Just an inch.

“Are you Brad’s sister-in-law?”

Oh, thank God.

Heidi nodded. “Yes. I am. Where is he?”

“Busy.” The man moved back a few feet and raised his brows to indicate she should realize she was safe and to step out of the car.

No way.

One, she was from Chicago and wasn’t stupid. Two, he could kill her with one swipe of that permanently grease-stained hand. Three, she’d already had the fright of her life this morning, and for all sakes and purposes maybe he was a ghost too.

Heidi avoided asking him if he was dead. That probably wouldn’t come across as friendly.

“It’s my back tire. It’s making clunking sounds.”

He blinked.

Heidi tried again. “Over there. The back tire? On the passenger side.”

He just stood there. The dog meandered over to his side and sat down, staring at her from its one good eye. Heidi shot a glance at the truck. Yep. The cat was still watching her too.

“Did Brad send you?” Heidi yelled through the crack in the window, even though the conversation they’d already had sort of made that obvious.

The man nodded. His arms were crossed over a very broad chest.

“Okay, soooooo . . .” She dragged out her words. He didn’t move. “My tire?”

The man blinked and then, with a barely concealed sigh, rounded the car. She watched him in the side mirror. He squatted next to the tire, bent and looked under the vehicle. Grabbing at something, he tugged and pulled and then stood, apparently finished with whatever he’d found.

He rounded the car, dog at his heels. Bending, the man’s mouth descended to the crack in the window. Heavens, his lips looked like they’d been carved from clay and hardened beneath the hands of Michelangelo himself.

Heidi looked away.

“A stick.”

“A what?”

“You had a stick wedged between the muffler and the chassis.”

“Oh.” Heidi mustered a smile and shrugged, embracing her ignorance. “Well, I thought maybe it was the tie rod.”

“That’s on the front wheels.” His correction was disinterested. “You all good then?”

He really was Brad’s ministering angel. Although, Heidi frowned, angel wasn’t exactly a proper description. She rolled her eyes at her own heightened sense of erratic caution. Overreacting and assuming everyone was out to assault her was a bit ludicrous. She unlocked the car and opened the driver’s door.

“I’m sorry.” She draped her arms over the door, making sure her rear end could take a quick drop and land back onto the driver’s seat if necessary. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I just—well, a girl’s gotta be cautious.”

The man eyed her for a second, then muttered, “Then I wouldn’t have opened your door.” He turned on his heel and headed back toward his truck, dog marching beside him.

“Hey!” Heidi hollered after him. His retort had stung. She wasn’t used to acquaintances—strangers—reprimanding her, let alone allowing it to bother her. But for some reason, his rebuke did. Maybe because it made sense.

He turned, question in his eyes.

“What do I owe you?”

“Nothing.” He opened his door. “Just watch out for sticks next time.”

His words were delivered with zero humor.

“What a—wow,” Heidi mumbled with a frown as the man stepped aside to let the dog hop into the truck. “What’s your name?” she ventured. Not that she cared. But if Brad asked her later about the man he’d sent, it’d help to refer to the guy by name.

The man tugged at the brim of his soiled hat. “Rhett. Rhett Crawford.” He climbed into the cab and slammed the door.

Heidi watched him back up and then spin the truck around and head back toward Pleasant Valley. She was fast regretting ever coming here. And, she hadn’t even seen her ailing mother yet.

She slid back in the driver’s seat and shut the door. It was best to follow Rhett Crawford back into town. Not because she wanted to follow him, but because she needed population. People who breathed and could form a smile. She needed warmth, spontaneity, fun. Anything to get her mind off the ghostly vision at her window, the dead woman, and the idea that Pleasant Valley wasn’t pleasant at all. It was a grave that had somehow opened and was planning to exhume all its secrets. Secrets no one even knew it had.





CHAPTER 6

Hi, Mom.”

The greeting sounded inane to Heidi’s ears. She sank onto a chair opposite the gray-haired woman, slumped in a wheelchair, organizing buttons into piles on the tray in front of her.

This was going to be harder than she’d expected. Heidi knew seeing her mother for the first time since she was diagnosed with dementia would be tense, but the envelope she held between her fingers made it even more so. Questions of whether Loretta Lane would even recall the words she’d penned or be able to explain what she’d meant by them was yet to be seen.

Heidi watched her mother’s long finger move a brown button into a pile of blue. She offered Heidi a small smile, with no sign of recognition, and dropped her gaze to the buttons. She was a shell. There was no familiar scrutiny of Heidi. No familiarity at all. Heidi hadn’t expected the twang of bittersweet regret to build a lump in her throat.

“Mom?” she tried again.

This time, Loretta Lane lifted cloudy blue eyes, her gray brows furrowed in concentration. A tiny smile touched her dry, chapped lips. “Ohhh! It’s you!”

Heidi nodded, reaching out to take her aging mother’s hand. “I’m here.”

She didn’t know what to say. Which was sort of funny. Her father had always said Heidi could sing and dance her way out of a hostage situation. Now? She was tongue-tied. She set the envelope on the table between them. Maybe her mother would notice it, say something about it.

Loretta ignored it and reached out, patting the top of Heidi’s hand. “Good girl,” she crooned.

Her palm was cool, the skin almost translucent. She was seventy-six. Heidi only thirty. In some ways, it didn’t seem fair she was losing her mother before she was barely out of her twenties. And this? The hand pat, and now the way her mother’s fingers folded around hers? This was a gentle side of her mother she’d not often seen. Mothers were supposed to live—forever—even if you didn’t really like them. Loretta had just always been there. Always. Heidi could look back to her early years and recall vague moments of fondness. A mother who’d nurtured her. But as she grew, things changed. Her parents trusted her less, faith became rule-bound, and Heidi had pulled away.

A twinge caught her. She had pulled away. Sometimes finding her own blame in the distance between her and family was painful—too painful—to focus on.

“How’s that young man treating you?” Loretta’s words broke Heidi’s train of thought. The older woman’s expression showed concern with a hint of criticism.

Heidi drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “No young man, Mom. Just me.” She flicked the edge of the envelope, hoping to draw subtle attention to it.

“Oh good.” Loretta gave a curt nod and raised her gray eyebrows sternly. “I never liked him. Not a spiritual bone in his body.”

Heidi had no idea who her mother thought she was talking about. She lifted the envelope. Time for a more direct tack.

“I got your letter.”

Loretta tilted her head to the right, looking down at the envelope. A pause. Finally she reached for it and read the address. There was a little sound in her throat, one of surprise, and then she lifted her eyes to Heidi.

“That girl. That girl.” She shook her head and handed the envelope back to Heidi. “She likes bluebirds. Did I tell you that?”

It was true. Heidi had always loved bluebirds. An uncomfortable sensation filled her as she realized her mother was speaking to someone else entirely. She didn’t recognize her. Didn’t recognize the letter.

“So much trouble. But so tender too.” The woman’s eyes grew distant. A thick knot formed in Heidi’s throat.

“Mom?” Heidi pressed gently.

“What, child?” Loretta tilted her head in the other direction. Studying. Eyeing Heidi with a clouded gaze. “Oh!” Her hand fluttered to her throat, and she leaned forward. “You came!”

Heidi wasn’t sure who her mother thought she was now. “I did. Yes. You asked me to.”

“I did, didn’t I?” Loretta had a bit of clarity in her vision now. She nodded thoughtfully, her eyes narrowing, deepening the wrinkles at the corners. She squeezed Heidi’s hand.

“It was my fault. I—I had to see you.” There was a desperation in her mother’s voice. Loretta glanced at the envelope and released Heidi’s hand, reaching for it again.

“I’m here,” Heidi whispered.

“This.” Loretta tapped the envelope on the table. “Vicki doesn’t know I wrote to you.”

“I assumed she didn’t,” Heidi responded.

Loretta bit her chapped bottom lip. She looked away and up, then back to the table. When she raised her eyes, there was confusion in them again. Loretta’s throat bobbed as she swallowed hard.

“You’re really here?” There was wonderment on her face now. Confused wonderment. Her eyes were wide, staring at Heidi as if she were looking at a ghost.

“Yeah, Mom. I’m here.” Heidi mustered a smile.

The woman blinked several times to clear her vision. She patted the sides of her short gray bob and shook her head as if to unclog her thoughts.

“Well, then,” Loretta breathed. “I thought you were dead.”



Fast-growing darkness suffocated the car, squeezing Heidi’s conscience like a vise. She pushed the gas pedal down further, urging the car forward with an unwise increase in acceleration.

Dead. Her mother thought she was dead. She’d recognized her in the end, hadn’t she? Or was she lost in a world of her own making? The letter written by her mother was discarded on the passenger-side seat. Worthless words with no explanation.

She’d come to Pleasant Valley at the pleading of a mother who didn’t even know who Heidi was.

Trees whizzed by on either side of the road, the center line a blur. Heidi flicked her headlights on to offset the dusk. Her mother’s words repeated over and over in her mind, creating a familiar and very unwanted weakness in Heidi’s stomach. Her breaths came short and quick.

“I thought you were dead.”

Heidi knew it was her mother’s dementia speaking. But still, she’d vocalized Heidi’s worst, most innate fear about her family. That one day they would disown her. The misfit child who never measured up and was no longer worth their efforts.

“I thought you were dead.”

Heidi squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them just as fast. Driving wasn’t a great time to try to erase the memories, but the gut-clenching anxiety of the day was giving panic far more power over reason. So many memories flooded her mind, shortening her breaths. They whirled out of order, chaotic, suffocating any ability to coherently process them. Just memories in a jumble, embraced by dread.

Her pastor dad lecturing her twelve-year-old self about how listening to the secular music radio station wasn’t glorifying God and certainly wasn’t helping with her spiritual development. Images of her mother sitting on the edge of Heidi’s bed when she was fifteen and curled into a ball of tears, inexplicable emotions coursing through her, and hearing her mother coach her that she needed to work on her faith. Daily devotions, prayer, all of that would make this unreasonable sense of panic leave her.

What more likely than not was meant to be some sort of loving instruction had instead made Heidi feel less than. She wasn’t enough spiritually, she didn’t have enough faith, she didn’t read the Bible enough . . . so that by the end of high school, Heidi had had enough.

“Oh my—!” Heidi jerked back to reality as a dog darted into the road. She slammed on the brakes, the tires screeching their resistance to the sudden attempt to stop. The rear end of the car fishtailed left, then right, and then that sickening sensation when the left side of her bumper slammed into the creature.

A yelp.

A scream.

Heidi tried to compensate for the erratic movement of the car, but she’d been going too fast. The nose of her vehicle aimed for and careened into a grassy ditch. The crash shot Heidi’s body forward, but thankfully her seat belt locked and held her back. The impact wasn’t great enough to inspire the airbag to deploy, but regardless, the jolting stop left her stunned.

Everything fell silent with the exception that she could hear her breaths, her heart pounding in her already throbbing head. Heidi fumbled for the car door. It opened without issue, and she unhooked her seat belt, stumbling from the vehicle.

Bewildered, she stood in the long grasses of the ditch.

A keening wail pierced through Heidi, shaking her to her core. She wiped her hand over her eyes, blinking rapidly. Tears burned their way down her face, and Heidi swiped at them.

The figure of a young woman running down the sloped yard from a house set up and away from the road jerked Heidi’s attention from her own dizzying state of mind to the dog she had just hit.

Oh dear God.

Heidi stumbled forward. She wasn’t a dog fanatic, but she had no desire to hurt one, let alone a family pet!

The dog was whimpering, its front legs pawing at the asphalt. It was a stocky white pit bull with a tan mask. The fading daylight didn’t help Heidi’s assessment, but if she were placing bets, the dog’s rear leg had to be broken.

Another wail, this time coming from the side of the road, yanked Heidi’s attention from the wounded animal to the woman. She was at best in her early twenties. Her slight frame looked as if it could blow away in the wind. When she reached the road’s edge, she froze as if an invisible wall were there. Her forearms rotated in an aggravated circular motion, and her body rocked as she wept.

Heidi held out her palm. “Stay there! Please.” The last thing she needed was a frantic pet owner rushing to the dog’s side and being bit due to the animal’s instinctive defense mechanism. Or worse, being hit by another idiot driver like herself.

The young woman didn’t answer. She was fixated on the dog, and her weeping had contorted her face into one of sheer agony.

Heidi squinted into the diminishing light, trapped between rescuing the dog she’d hit or hurrying to the emotional aid of an obviously distraught human being. Not to mention, it was getting more difficult to see. Curse the dusk! It was so empty. She hated this. Hated being alone and solely responsible. Hated being confronted with the reality of the day’s events from a ghostlike face at her window, to her mother. Now this?

The woods were closing in on her. Their branches reached for her, even though they bordered the mowed lawn of the country residence. Heidi’s sense of reason whirled faster and faster in her mind, like a carousel on hyperdrive. She couldn’t pause it, couldn’t grab hold of it to slow it down, to make sense of anything.

Heidi sank to the road, still caught between the woman and her dog. She needed escape, not unlike the agitated owner who continued to rock in grief. Heidi’s body shook from nerves, her hands quivered, and her fingers clawed at her jeans in a rhythmic tic. She couldn’t control it. Couldn’t stop it. She was drowning . . .

Headlights blinded her.

No!

Heidi scrambled to her feet, drawing in quick shuddered breaths. She held out her hands, and if she had the superpower to stop the truck that was approaching, she would. It slowed, then pulled off into the driveway, just shy of where the dog lay. Tires crunched on gravel as the vehicle pulled to a stop. A door opened, then slammed shut. Flashlight. A large form.

“Emma!” The gravelly voice sliced through the tense air. The man ignored the dog and sprinted to the woman’s side. He squatted down in front of her so they were eye to eye. He didn’t reach for her. His hands perched on his knees.

“Emma. Emma, everything is all right. Let’s breathe.”

It was Rhett Crawford, the mechanic.

He took a deep breath. He let it out. Emma imitated. They breathed in, breathed out, breathed in, breathed out. Heidi noticed she was breathing with them. Her anxiety that threatened to immobilize waned now into a more controllable distress.

Rhett reached into the pocket of his tan Carhartt jacket. He pulled out a red ball, big enough for a hand to comfortably wrap around. He handed it to Emma, who took it.

“Squeeze it, baby girl.”

She did.

“There you go.” He stepped away from her.

Emma calmed, and even though her upper body still rocked, she was in control of herself now. Rhett snatched his phone from the back pocket of his jeans and sent a quick text. Once done, he turned back to Emma.

“I texted Mom. She’ll be down in a sec, okay?”

A nod from the young woman, large eyes searching Rhett’s and finding stability there.

Rhett shifted from her and stepped toward Heidi. His eyes brushed over her, then settled on the dog. She heard him curse under his breath.

“You all right?” His words were tossed at her as he neared the dog.

“I’ll live.” Her response was flippant, but it was all she could think to say.

He knelt by the animal, who lifted its head and whimpered. Rhett mumbled something to the dog, running a hand down its spine, its leg. The dog whined.

Rhett stood and motioned for Heidi. “Stand over here.”

She moved toward him, casting an unsure glance at Emma. He followed her gaze.

“She’ll be okay. I need to run to my truck.”

Heidi stood over the dog as Rhett ran to the tailgate of the pickup. He came back carrying a piece of scrap plywood.

Kneeling by the dog, he looked up at Heidi. She stood there helpless.

“We need to get Ducie onto this plywood and off the road,” he instructed. “Can you help?”

“Ducie?”

“The dog?” His voice had a hint of irritation.

“Oh.” Heidi knelt next to Ducie. Big chestnut-brown eyes stared up at her, begging for help.

This was her fault. All her fault.



It was now her turn for medical attention. One hour later, that is. Heidi was still shaking, although she’d done a decent job of hiding that fact by fabricating her special, nonchalant smile, often called upon in moments when she was certain the Apocalypse was all of sixty seconds from beginning. She sat on the edge of a kitchen chair, in the house from where the dog had run and Emma had followed. To her surprise, Emma’s mother was none other than the antique owner, Connie, who’d sold her that awful photo album with the doppelgänger dead woman. Apparently, Connie was Rhett’s mother too.

Rhett had removed his jacket and also the flannel shirt that hung loose over his T-shirt. The greasy baseball cap was still secured on his head. He didn’t give her nearly the same attention as he’d given the dog. Rhett was pouring coffee into a mug as though driving one’s car through an animal into a ditch was just another day at the—well, not the office—the shop?

Heidi blinked rapidly to do away with the white spots that often affected her sight when she was warding off panic.

“Nothing’s broke?” Rhett inquired, his voice even.

“My car might need surgery,” she quipped, but it came out a bit snappy. Even conversation directed toward her felt overwhelming. Trying to segregate the elements of the messy day was like trying to sort a bag full of macaroni noodles into a baby-food jar.

“I meant you.” There was no humor in Rhett’s voice. He didn’t sound irritated either. Just a straight shooter.

“No, I’m fine.” She wasn’t. She never was. But she lied to herself about it every day, so lying to a stranger was simple.

“K.” He didn’t even ask what happened, or why she’d hit Ducie, the dog, or what she was planning on doing with her car half buried in his parents’ ditch.

Rhett turned toward her, coffee mug in his hand. “Cream? Sugar?”

“Huh?” Heidi blinked.

“Cream or sugar?”

Oh. Wow. He was prolific with his words. Heidi blinked several times and then shook her head. “Black.”

He raised an appreciative brow and handed her the mug.

Connie Crawford breezed into the room, easing out of her sweater and hanging it on a wood-stenciled row of coat pegs by the door. She patted her son’s shoulder as she passed him on her way to the coffeemaker.

“Emma is fine,” she reassured them. Connie’s brief sweep of the room with her soft smile included Heidi.

“I’m so sorry,” Heidi breathed.

“I’m sorry you’ve had to sit in that chair while we all hustled around you the last hour!”

“Oh no, no. I mean, what can I do? Can I pay the vet bill? Anything.”

And please don’t sue me. She could feel the anxiety crowding her throat, burning tears behind her eyes. It was here. Full on. She’d be lucky not to throw up.

“Heavens no!” Connie leaned against the counter, holding the warm mug between her hands. Her eyes were warm, if not downright apologetic. “Ducie is Emma’s service dog. We have insurance for him, so it will cover the vet bills. My husband just called from the vet with Ducie.” She glanced at Rhett. “It looks like a clean break of the tibia. They’re casting it now.”

Heidi sucked in a shaky breath. “I’m so sorry,” she said again.

“We got that part.” Rhett had an edge to his voice. Either he was irritated she’d repeated herself, or he was irritated at her. Probably both. She could see the tension in his shoulders, around his jaw, and the corners of his eyes.

“Rhett.” Connie said his name as a mother might veil a slight scolding to her adult child.

Rhett pushed off the opposite counter. “Not much we can do about your car tonight.” He avoided Heidi’s eyes. “I’ll send someone tomorrow with a tow truck.”

Connie moved past her hulk of a son, who only needed green skin and a raging growl to complete the persona. She seemed to read Heidi’s face, her pasted-on smile, and her stiff shoulders. She pulled out a chair at the table beside her, leaning forward on her elbows, hands still cupping the coffee mug.

Heidi looked down at her coffee, un-sipped and perched in her hands. The liquid tremored a bit as her hands shook.

Connie narrowed her eyes. “Are you truly all right?”

“I am.” Heidi consciously made her shoulders drop. She softened her smile and met Connie’s eyes. Eye contact was always good. It helped people believe you were telling the truth. But the way Connie searched hers told Heidi that the woman was not one to be fooled.

“Really. I just feel awful.” She did. Inside and out.

“Accidents happen.” Connie gave her a reassuring smile. “The only reason Ducie even ran into the road was that Emma had the dog out for their evening walk and Emma’s scarf blew off her neck. Ducie was attempting to retrieve it. He was unleashed and ran out into the road. So it was our fault.”

“You don’t leash service dogs at home.” Rhett growled like one as he crossed his arms.

Connie shot him a stern glare. “You do in some circumstances.”

He harrumphed and stalked from the room.

“Ignore Rhett.” His mother waved him away. “He’s insatiably protective of his sister. You could be Winnie the Pooh and he’d still glare at you if he thought you’d put Emma or her dog in any danger.”

That was—reassuring?

Heidi sipped her coffee for something to do. To keep herself from crying. She hated this uncontrollable part of her. The kind that ran away with her logic and self-confidence and left a quivering mess behind.

“Anyway,” Connie finished. “Emma has autism. She’s high-functioning, but routine is important and this will obviously be a setback for her. Rhett is a natural-born rescuer and fixer.”

And she was a natural-born screw-up. Heidi winced. They’d get along fabulously.

Connie tipped her head and studied Heidi. “Did you ever find out if you’re related to that woman in the photograph?”

Change of subject. Connie was adept at calming nerves. Normally, Heidi would have allowed herself to be sidetracked, but that particular question revived events from earlier in the day.

“Um, no,” Heidi answered.

“I’d be curious to know if you are. I’d love to help you find out, if you ever want to.”

The sound of work boots clomping on the hardwood floor brought both women’s heads up. Rhett marched back into the room, snatching up his keys from a key-ring hook on the side of one of the cabinets.

“Let’s go.” He stood over Heidi.

“Go?” Heidi craned her neck to look up at the superhero wannabe with serious personality issues.

He stared down at her with the thunderous scowl of the Hulk.

Connie interceded. “That’s Rhett’s refined way of saying he’ll take you home.”

Heidi smirked—she had to—at Connie’s unveiled dig at her son’s manners. She supposed being driven home by Rhett wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but it was the Hulk in him that kept Heidi from thinking Rhett Crawford was even remotely a superhero.





CHAPTER 7

Thea

A tiny bell tinkled out a melody as Thea pushed open the door to the only portrait studio in Pleasant Valley. That they even had a studio was perhaps a miracle in and of itself, as a town based solely on the collection of lumber certainly didn’t have enough population to support an entire year’s worth of salary for a photographer. Still, if she had learned enough from Mr. Mendelsohn, they would be partners by end of day. As a traveling photographer, he’d made it his art not only to garner sales door to door, but also engage the temporary comradeship of others established in the field. Thea hoped to garner the same results.

Now, her shoes clapped along the floorboards as she gave the small studio a quick once-over. Amos Bros. Photography had been painted on the front window in stenciled letters with scrollwork beneath it. Each wall in the room appeared decorated to be a different room in an actual home. One of the walls was cream with emerald green bordering and hand-painted bouquets. A velvet-covered chair, a white pillar of four feet or so, a few plants, and an easel were positioned strategically. In the chair, an orange cat was curled up and watching her through slits for eyes, its tail twitching up and down.

“May I help you?” The booming voice jolted Thea from her observations. A man of medium height and build entered the room from a doorway near the wall opposite the front entrance. His long mustache draped along the edges of his mouth, thoroughly and completely white. His hair was parted in the middle, yet it was hardly worth the effort, for there wasn’t much left atop his head to part at all.

Thea composed her wits and ceased her meticulous perusal of the room. She cleared her throat. “Dorothea Reed.” She extended a gloved hand, and the elderly man eyed it. Seemingly unused to palming a lady’s hand, he took it gingerly, fingertip to fingertip, then released it.

“Martin Amos.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Amos. I am a photographer—a traveling photographer—and I have settled in Pleasant Valley for the time being.”

His eyebrow lifted. Not unfriendly, more like he waited before he drew any sort of conclusion about her.

Thea swallowed. “I’ve no intention of setting up competitive services, I only wondered if I might be able to garner employment with you. For an interim period and a small sum, offset by allowing me use of your development room. I have a small black room in my wagon to create the negative plates, but for transfer to paper I need a more suitable work space.”

“My development room?” Mr. Amos coughed.

It wasn’t as though she’d requested entrance into his private living quarters.

Thea nodded. It was never easy asserting herself now that Mr. Mendelsohn was gone.

“Employment?” He cleared his throat again.

“For a small sum. I must be able to cover my own living expenses. But I’m not looking for extravagance, Mr. Amos. I would appreciate the freedom to develop my photographs when I take them on my own time, outside of town.”

Mr. Amos blinked. Finally, he crossed his arms, his gray wool suit coat stretching taut against thin shoulders. “You’re proposing I allow a traveling photographer entrance to my business and interaction with my clientele, so you can develop photographs that you took of your own accord and therefore stealing from me potential business?”

Well, she had bungled this up well and good, hadn’t she? Thea opened the satchel she gripped tightly in one hand. “Please. I’m quite good at assisting accomplished photographers such as yourself. For pay, I would help you here in the studio. And as for my own work, if you take a look at it, you’ll understand. I’ve a very special type of photograph. . . .” She didn’t bother to mention that she also took the normal portraitures. Instead, she made a silent promise to stay honest and only photograph what she represented to Mr. Amos now.

“Ah. Memorial photographs.” He spoke over her shoulder as she pulled out samples. Thea looked up and noticed his eyes fixed on the photographs that were pasted to thick paperboard.

“Yes,” Thea nodded. “It’s a privilege to help family members capture the final pose of their loved ones who have passed on. I’ve all the equipment. Backdrops, framework, even sewing kits to assist with preparing the body if needed. I only do not have a decent place to develop the photographs.”

The man waved her pictures away. “That’s—disturbing.”

“So, you don’t offer memorial photographic services?” she asked innocently, knowing full well there was the possibility he did not, and hoping it was true. While it was traditional to take photographs with the newly passed on, many photographers still found it unsettling. Why wouldn’t they? In small towns such as these, they often knew personally those who had passed on and so collecting their last image was rife with memories, superstitions, and even for some, grief.

“When I must.” He crossed his arms over his chest again. “I wouldn’t deny the last memento to a grieving family.”

“However, you don’t travel to find them?” Thea pressed forward, borrowing confidence from the fact she’d heard Mr. Mendelsohn use this same line of reasoning before.

“Door to door?” He sniffed. “Certainly not.”

“There is business there,” she cajoled.

He narrowed his eyes. “I refuse to monopolize on another’s grief. What? Would yo