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'Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe' Chapters 13 & 14


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Illustration by Nick Matej

 

13

 

“You live near here, don’t you?”

“Up the mountain a bit, in a cabin on Creek Hill,” Cam Kolbaugh said.

“Great area for photographing wildlife.” The reporter jotted a note.

Cam adjusted his camera strap. “Some of the best.”

“Have you managed to get any shots of the blackbirds?”

Cam reviewed the photos on his camera. “Haven’t been able to capture a clear shot quite yet.” He turned the screen toward the reporter.

“Blurry and hazy. Is that because it’s a night shot?”

Cam clicked a button, and the screen went black. His gaze shifted toward the back of the café, out the window to the mulberry trees. “I don’t think so.”

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Natalie

“I should just cancel,” I said under my breath as I hotfooted it from the little house to my car parked at the far end of the driveway.

It had been a day.

Actually, it had been a week.

A week of dealing with my mother’s chill because I hadn’t asked her to watch Ollie while I worked at the café, which was in addition to her iciness that I had taken the part-time job in the first place.

There had been nonstop guests at the café—people who’d come to see the blackbirds, a phenomenon I admit I thought would fizzle within a few days but only seemed to be picking up steam.

I was already worried about Ollie’s swimming lesson the next morning and trying my hardest not to think of her going under the water and not coming back up.

On top of it all, I was dreading the appointment I had with the grief counselor down in Fort Payne this afternoon. I’d almost canceled three times in the last few days and was currently mulling it again.

Even the thought of talking about Matt dredged up emotions I’d rather keep tamped down. It was easier that way. I’d been fending off panic attacks left and right this week, and I was spent from the effort.

If not for my father, I might already have the answers that would bring about peace in my life.

You’re not going to find healing in a piece of pie, Natalie. The heal­ing’s got to come from within you.

It was one thing to disappoint my mother on purpose, but I couldn’t bring myself to do the same with my father, so I tried to take his words to heart. I hadn’t eaten the pie, and I’d made the appointment with the counselor. Baby steps.

If this appointment in any way, shape, or form helped me to be a better mother to Ollie, it would be worth it. The last thing I ever wanted was for Ollie to witness one of my panic attacks—something she’d come too close to seeing recently. As much as I hated to admit it, even to myself, I needed help.

The small brown bird that I’d been seeing a lot lately sat on the fence railing next to my car, not looking the least bit disturbed by my presence as it used its beak to clean under its crooked wing. The ribbon of black coloring near its eye made it look like it had drawnon eyebrows, and the thought of a bird wearing makeup suddenly lightened my mood.

The blooming pink viburnums lining the driveway filled the air with a sweet floral scent, which was a whole lot more pleasant than ​​the perfume of bacon, coffee, biscuits, and chicken-fried steak that I’d worn home from work.

Unwilling to go to my appointment smelling like the café, I’d taken precious minutes to shower. I braided my wet hair, since I didn’t have time to style it properly, and changed into a long light-weight skirt and sleeveless blouse. I chose my loosest sandals, ones that wouldn’t rub my healing blisters. A salve Anna Kate had given me had worked wonders, but the new skin was still tender.

As quick as I’d cleaned myself up, I was still running late. Since most everywhere in Wicklow was walkable, it had been a month since I’d driven my tiny white hatchback. The neglect showed. The rain that had come through the night before had smeared together the dirt and pollen that encased the car, making the paint job look like it had been done at the hands of an Impressionist. I couldn’t remember how much gas I had left in the tank, and then there was the matter of the dangling muffler. Crouching down, I peeked under the bumper and saw that someone—most likely my father—had placed a plastic pan under the car to catch dripping oil.

He was forever cleaning up my messes.

I made the quick decision that the muffler was on its own—I didn’t have time to fuss with it. At the filling station on the way out of town, I’d stop to see if someone could add a quart of oil to the engine while I filled the gas tank.

It would all be fine.

Just fine.

Absolutely fine.

I dropped my head into my hands, took a deep breath to pull myself together, and Lord help me, I swore I could still smell hickorysmoked bacon on my fingers.

A quivery female voice came from nearby. “Don’t you cancel that appointment, Natalie.”

My head snapped up as I looked around. I didn’t see anyone. “Hello?”

Slowly turning in a circle, my gaze swept the area, zeroing in on places where someone could hide. Other than a few birds and some bees, I was alone as far as I could tell.

Chill bumps rose along my skin. The voice, I realized, sounded exactly like the one that had woken me last week.

Your father is dying.

I’d done my level best to forget that unsettling declaration, chalking it up to a bad dream. But now … I wasn’t sure what was going on. Could be I was overheated and my mind was playing tricks. It was hot and humid.

Throwing a wary look over my shoulder, I started wondering if the voice was my conscience speaking. I didn’t know what that theory meant in terms of my father and his health, however.

I threw a glance at the big house. I had spent much of this past Sunday’s supper studying him, looking for any trace that he was ill. On the surface, he didn’t appear to be. If I was nitpicking, I’d say his skin color was a bit off, but I didn’t know if that was because he’d been golfing the day before and had a bit of a sunburn, or if it was due to something else.

There were other things I’d noticed—only because I’d been looking. His appetite wasn’t near to normal. He’d taken smaller portions and had poked at most of it. He’d seemed a little slower to lift up Ollie as well, as though he were in pain.

When I questioned him, he blamed his lack of an appetite on stress, and the pain on his golf game.

If I didn’t know him so well, I’d have sworn he was lying.

But he didn’t lie. It was one of his traits I loved most.

Still, by the time I went home that night, I couldn’t ignore the pit in my stomach that something wasn’t right with him. Whether it was the business with Anna Kate or something else … I wasn’t sure.

“Git!” the voice said in a high-pitched tone, darn near operatic.

It sounded like it was coming from the driver’s side of the car, near the fence, but there was nothing there but the bushes and that fastidious bird.

“I’m going,” I said loudly, and there was no mistaking the irritability in my tone.

Car keys in hand, I prayed to the good Lord above that the car started. It was looking more and more likely that I’d be a few minutes late for my appointment. Which, now that I considered it, might not be a bad thing. A short initial meeting appealed to me. Get in, scratch the surface of my issues, get out. Nothing too deep or painful.

Leaving the door open to let the car exhale its hot, stale air, I slid behind the wheel and groaned at the pulsing wave of blazing heat that nearly pushed me right back out. I tossed my purse on the passenger seat and leaned across to roll down the window, hoping a stiff breeze would blow through. Hurricane-force winds seemed delightful at the moment. The window stuck halfway, but I didn’t have time to fight with it.

Sweat rose along my forehead as I put the key in the ignition. “Please start, please start, please start.”

The engine coughed like an asthmatic at the perfume counter in a department store but didn’t turn over. Taking a deep breath, I tried the ignition again, pressing gently on the gas pedal, hoping a little fuel would help the situation.

Unfortunately it didn’t do anything other than fill the car with the odor of gas.

After counting to ten in my head, I turned the key again. The engine sputtered, died, and the scent of burning oil filtered through the vents. Cursing a blue streak, I pulled the key. The car would be no good to me at all if it caught fire, and though it probably deserved a quick, flaming death, I didn’t want that to happen.

I’d scraped and scrounged and saved the money to buy the used car after Matt’s death. Long after our two much-fancier cars had been repossessed. The hatchback was a bare-bones model. No fancy power windows, no radio. Its stick shift tended to, appropriately, stick, and the clutch made ungodly groaning noises. But it was mine.

I popped the hood, even though I had no earthly idea what I was looking for. Mama would have had a stroke if she ever caught me looking under the hood of a car, let alone tinkering with an engine. I could practically hear her now making a comment about who’d keep food on the mechanics’ tables if we tended to our own cars, and did I want taking food out of babies’ mouths on my conscience? Never even mind the grease issues.

As I lifted the hood I wasn’t sure what I’d expected to see, but it surely wasn’t a hastily formed bird’s nest sitting right smack-dab on top of the battery. There was a single speckled egg in the nest that looked a lot like a mottled rock.

Even if I had been able to get the car started, there was no way I could bring myself to remove that nest. Not until after the egg hatched and the baby bird flew away.

My car wasn’t going anywhere for quite a while.

Apparently, neither was I.

Closing my eyes, I waited for that singsong-y voice to tell me what to do now, since it was being so bossy this afternoon. Instead, I picked up the sound of barking. Barking that seemed to be growing louder and closer.

I peeked around the hood. Racing toward me up the driveway was a dark gray cat being chased by—I squinted—River, Cam Kolbaugh’s dog. Both animals ran at full speed, one barking, one growling.

“River! Stop! Heel!” I jumped in front of him and tried to grab his collar. He darted around me. The cat, one I recognized as a local stray who’d been around for what seemed like decades, zipped under the car’s bumper, hissing the whole way, his ears flattened.

River followed the cat under, dropping his belly to the ground like he was taking part in some sort of army obstacle course.

“No, no!” I looked under the car. “Heel!”

Still yowling, they both avoided the pan of oil—thank God—and emerged on the other side of the car, near the passenger door. The cat took off again, circling around the car, River on his heels.

The noise of it all was about to do me in when screeching tires added to the ear-splitting chorus. Cam had parked his truck at the end of the driveway. “River!” he shouted, breaking into a sprint. “Down!”

The cat made his way back to me and leaped into the car, onto the driver’s seat. I quickly slammed the door before River could go in after him.

Still barking his head off, River set his mud-crusted paws on the door and rose up on his hind legs to look through the window. The suddenly serene cat looked quite smug as he watched River slobber on the glass. One ear came up, then the other, which I noticed was scarred. Probably from a run-in with a dog at some point. The cat’s head tipped to the side, and he began washing his face, using a paw to stroke his cheek.

I grabbed River by the collar, keeping tight hold as Cam quickly clipped on a leash.

“Down, boy.”

River glanced up at Cam, then slowly sat down, inch by inch, as if it were the last thing in the whole world he wanted to do.

“What was that all about?” he asked the dog.

River panted and wagged his tail.

To me, Cam said, “We were driving home when River suddenly jumped out the open window. I don’t know what came over him— he’s never done anything like that before.”

I pointed inside the car. “A cat came over him.”

But the cat was gone. I looked around. “He must have gone out the passenger window.”

Cam scratched at his beard, and there was confusion in his tone when he said, “River’s never gone after cats before.”

“I’m sure the cat instigated it, right, River?” I patted his head.

Cam smiled. He had on mud-splattered hiking pants and a blue moisture-wicking shirt, also covered in grime. “Don’t go giving him ideas that it’s okay to chase cats.” He spotted the open hood and said, “Car trouble?”

“If by trouble you mean catastrophe, then yes.”

Looking under the hood, Cam whistled. “Looks like a squatter’s made herself right at home, and that’s the least of the problems.”

“Can’t say I blame her. The car hasn’t budged since I parked it here a month ago.”

“This is your car?” The confusion was back in his voice, along with a touch of judgment.

“Yes. Why?” I put my hands on my hips. “Just making sure,” he said quickly.

He leaned in and poked around the engine. “Wait a sec.” He reached in and touched the egg. “This is a rock.”

“What?”

“It’s a rock.” He held it out to me.

“How did it get in the nest?”

“Can’t say I know, but that bird’s going to be sorely disappointed when the rock doesn’t hatch.” He gently put the stone back into the nest. “But, even with no nest, this car isn’t going anywhere without a tow truck.”

I sighed. “It’s my fault for not checking on it sooner, but I didn’t need it.”

“And you do today?”

“I have an appointment down in Fort Payne … had. I was already running late. By the time I track down a car to borrow I’ll have missed the appointment altogether.”

“Well, come on.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’ll take you down. My truck’s right here. Let’s go.”

“I can’t let you do that.”

“Why not? You don’t want to go to the appointment?”

That question hit too close to home. “It’ll waste your whole afternoon.”

“I have some errands down there I’ve been putting off. I can get those done while you’re busy. You’re actually doing me a favor, putting an end to my procrastination.”

Meeting his gaze, I held it. I wanted to say no thanks, go collect Ollie from Faylene’s house, and settle in for the night. But I could also feel the anxiety under the surface of my skin, poking and prodding me to do the right thing. “Put that way, okay, I’ll go with you to do your errands.”

He laughed as I grabbed my purse from the car, and within minutes we were on our way out of town. His pickup was a newer model with all the bells and whistles, and I couldn’t help smiling at the comparison to my junker.

Between me and Cam, River had settled in, his head on my leg, and he kept trying to lick my fingers. I knew I’d smelled bacon on them.

“Where are we headed?” Cam asked.

I pulled a piece of paper from my bag and read off the address. “It’s a medical building.”

He looked over. “You feeling okay?”

I rubbed River’s ears, which had flecks of mud stuck to the fur. “Physically, yes.”

He gave a firm, understanding nod. “Counseling?”

“I thought I was done with therapy, and I don’t particularly want to go back, but …” I shrugged, wondering why I was telling him all this. Maybe it was because he seemed to understand what I was going through—something most people couldn’t even fathom.

“To my way of thinking, it can’t hurt to go back. But it could help, right?”

“Have you ever been?”

“Sure. Unit-mandated, but I continued on my own after I got out.”

“Unit?”

“Sorry—I thought you knew. Most people around here seem to, though I don’t talk about it much.”

“Small towns …” I said, my tone sympathetic.

“I was a Green Beret.” His eyes darkened with a haze of sadness. River shifted, lifting his head off my leg. He pressed his nose into Cam’s thigh.

By Cam’s reaction, I should have stopped right there with the questions, but I was curious about this man. How had he gone from being a highly trained soldier to being a wildlife photographer? “How long were you in?”

“Seven years.” He petted River’s head. “I’ve been out for three.”

There was an emptiness in his voice that made my heart ache. I could only imagine what he’d seen and done to protect and survive. “Do you regret it? Your time as a soldier?”

He kept his eyes on the road, looking like he was debating answering before he finally said, “I don’t regret fighting for the country, protecting the soldiers I served with. But I definitely lost more in those years than I gained. Including good friends in combat and ultimately my marriage.”

There was absolutely nothing I could say that would help him in any way—I knew that from my own experiences with grief and trying to get on with life. But, as he showed me the other day, sometimes all it took to provide a little comfort was to just sit and be with someone else. “There’s a bench I know that’s great for sitting and watching the world go by. I’d be happy to sit with you for a while, if you ever feel the need.”

“I’ll remember that. Thanks, Natalie.”

“Anytime, Cam.”

We drove in silence for a while, and River eventually shifted his head back to me and my bacon scent. Mud from his ears flecked off onto my skirt.

“Were you two mudding today?” I asked.

“It feels that way, but no. We went down to Lake Martin early this morning to get some pictures of bald eagles—there’s a beautiful nest down there. We got a little too into our work, didn’t we, buddy?”

I instantly broke out in a cold sweat. My stomach pitched, and my head swirled. I slammed my eyes shut against the image of Matt’s bloated face.

“Natalie? Don’t hold your breath. It makes it worse.”

As I gulped in air, I felt Cam’s hand on my arm, warm and firm.

Rocks hit the undercarriage as the truck slowed to a stop on the side of the road. I heard the window go down. Hot, soggy air hit my face.

River whimpered and nudged my leg with his nose as Cam said, “Slow and steady breaths. Easy there. Good. That’s good. In. Out.”

Trying to focus on breathing, I rocked in my seat and felt Cam’s hand on my back, rubbing it in gentle circles.

“Did I ever tell you about the time Josh and I decided to sneak out of our house to go to a party a town over? I was sixteen, he was fifteen, and this party was the talk of school. Everybody was going. Somehow our mother caught wind of it and forbade us to go. As a single mom, she gave us a lot of leeway growing up, but for some reason she put her foot down that night.”

I opened my eyes—he was leaning in close to me and had a devilish look in his eyes. His hand kept rubbing my back.

“We, of course, were not to be deterred. Mom was an early bird and rarely could stay awake past ten at night. She wears earplugs to bed and sleeps like the dead. Josh and I thought we were golden. At midnight we climbed out a window in the spare bedroom at the back of the house. A buddy of ours picked us up and took us over to the party. We were there for five minutes, tops, when all hell broke loose. Had to be a least a hundred kids there. Fights broke out. Someone started busting windows. The cops came and everyone scattered. The cops caught the friend who drove us there, so Josh and I ran as fast as we’d ever run in our whole lives. Took us four hours to walk back to our neighborhood.”

My stomach started to settle and the dizziness faded.

“All we wanted to do was get home, go to bed, and forget the night ever happened. Hell, we hadn’t even gotten a beer out of it for all that effort.”

I smiled and rubbed River’s perked ears, which relaxed under my touch.

“So we finally get home and make to get back inside. Only the window’s stuck. Won’t open. None of them will. And while we were trying our damnedest to get into the house, a policeman shows up.

Someone had reported seeing suspicious characters trying to break in.”

I smiled at him—his wry tone was completely captivating.

“Stop me if I already told you how all this ends,” he said, his warm gaze feeling like a hug.

I cleared my throat. “You know full well that we only met last week and you haven’t told me anything, so don’t leave me hanging.”

He tugged on his beard. “Oh, that’s right. Just feels like I’ve known you forever. Where was I? Right. The policeman. He doesn’t believe Josh and me that we live there. And Mom doesn’t answer when he knocks—like I said, she sleeps like the dead until her internal clock goes off at five a.m. The policeman hauls us down to the police station, sticks us in a jail cell. We didn’t get offered a phone call, nothing. By noon, Josh is blubbering, certain that Mom was going to kill us on the spot when she found out where we were. I was trying to figure out a way to break out of our cell.” Cam pulled his hand from my back, checked over his shoulder, and pulled onto the road.

“And?” I asked, telling myself I wasn’t missing his hand on my back. “Did you find a way out?”

“Three ways. But we didn’t need ’em, because Mom finally showed up. Didn’t say a word to us as we waited to be let out. There was a vent above our heads—escape route number one, by the way—and Mom’s voice carried through it.”

“She was the one who called the cops on you,” I said.

“Hey now, don’t go stealing my storytelling thunder. How’d you know?”

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I laughed. “Because my mother did the same thing to me once when I was a teenager.”

His eyebrows shot up. “You don’t seem the type to sneak out.”

It was sneak out or be suffocated. “What type am I?”

The corner of his lip twitched. “Oh, I don’t know. Prim and proper. You know which fork goes where at a dinner table. I suspect you have monogrammed clothes, a lot of hats, and were a sorority girl— probably a legacy. I haven’t seen you wear pearls, but I’d bet you own them. You’re loyal and giving and a people pleaser. A good girl. Picturing you climbing out a window is as surprising to me as if you said you were from Mars.”

What he had said was annoyingly on point, right down to the pearls. I didn’t wear them because they reminded me too much of my mother.

“Am I wrong?” he asked.

“That I’m from Mars? Yes, you’re wrong. It only feels that way sometimes.” Like right now. “It’s true that I once was that girl. Some of me still is, I guess. Mostly, I’m not sure who I am anymore.” I didn’t really want to talk about that, so I quickly added, “Let’s just say my teen years were challenging. The only reason I wasn’t arrested that one time was because my father stepped in before the police officer carted me off. Said I’d learned my lesson.” He didn’t talk to my mother for nearly a week afterward, using her own silent treatment against her.

“Did you learn it?”

“No. Did you?”

“Yes, ma’am. Never snuck out again. Josh, either. But that’s not where my story ends.”

I shifted to face him. “It isn’t?”

“See, you thought I was just telling you a sweet coming-of-age tale, but what I was really telling you is a love story.”

“Oh, then please, go on.”

He grinned. “The policeman came back the next day to check on Josh and me, make sure we were staying on the straight and narrow after our run-in with the law. And he came by the day after that, too. Eventually Mom invited him to supper, and he pretty much never left. They’re happily married and living down in Key West these days.”

I pressed my hands to my heart. “Aww! How often do you remind her that if you and Josh didn’t sneak out that night …”

“As often as I can.”

“Well. That might be the best story I’ve ever heard. Thank you.”

“My pleasure.” He glanced my way. “Do you want to share what set you off a minute ago?”

Not really, but I felt as though I owed him an explanation after all he’d just done for me, talking me down.

Turning, I looked out the window at the passing scenery, then said, “Lake Martin is where my husband drowned after his boat overturned in a storm. His death was ruled an accident, but …”

“But?”

“I’m not sure it was.”

“You think it was murder?”

River had fallen asleep, and his soft snores filled the space between us. “No, nothing like that. I think it could have been a suicide.”

“What makes you think so?”

I liked that he didn’t try to console me or talk me out of the notion. He wanted the evidence. It was easier to focus on the details than the emotions. “I didn’t know until after his death that he’d been gambling. I had no clue. He’d been keeping it from me for years. Ly­ing. He traveled a lot for his job, so it was easy for him to hide it.”

“Casinos?”

“Mostly. Some online gambling as well. Got in way over his head, apparently. Our house had a second mortgage on it I didn’t know about, and was already in foreclosure. Our savings had been drained. He’d maxed out our credit cards. He’d borrowed money from friends. He’d lost his job the week before his death, and I didn’t know that, either. It seemed like every day after he died, something else came to light. I was a fool to let him handle all the finances, but it’s how we’d always done it.”

Just like my parents had, and theirs before them. I chafed at the reminder that I’d fallen easily into the same gender roles. How had I let that happen? I was more than capable of balancing a checkbook, yet … I’d let him do it. I happily let him do it while I tended to the house and tried my hardest to get pregnant.

“You’re not a fool,” he said.

I crossed my arms. “I shouldn’t have been so trusting.”

“Love is trust, Natalie. You had no reason to doubt him, did you?” Suddenly choked with emotion, I shook my head.

“Did he have life insurance?”

It took me a moment to answer. “Yes. We chose the policies when we bought our house, just one of those things the insurance agent recommended when we met with him.”

“Did the company honor the policy?”

“By some miracle, they did. Wasn’t near enough to cover Matt’s debts, though. The house was foreclosed on not long after the funeral, the cars were repossessed. I sold as much as I could before I finally had to declare bankruptcy to get out from underneath it all.”

My father had begged me to come home, but I hadn’t wanted to face my mother. Ollie and I had moved into a tiny studio apartment he’d found for us, and I searched for an entry-level job for someone who had never before been employed a day in her life. I didn’t have a degree to fall back on either, as I’d quit school two years shy of graduating to marry Matt and keep house.

My mother had fought me tooth and nail to stop the wedding, telling me over and over I was making a huge mistake. That I should finish school. That I should put myself before Matt. That I barely knew him.

But I’d been in love, and nothing she said could have stopped me.

I rambled on. “I know I should accept that it was an accident and move on with my ”

“Why was he on the lake that day?”

I jerked my head to look at him. “You’re good. Not many people ask that question. He was supposedly fishing.”

“He didn’t normally?”

“Not alone. Usually he went with a group of buddies.”

“Was he acting strangely that morning or the night before?”

I’d thought about that morning a million times. “It was a Friday, early. He said he was going out to the lake, and that he loved me. He kissed Ollie goodbye and left.” My voice caught and I cleared my throat. “It was strange only that it was a weekday—he said he had the day off—and that he was going alone. A storm blew up fast, and his boat capsized. He was missing for two days afterward. In that time, the man he rented the boat from said Matt had been there every morning for a week, fishing alone. I just hadn’t known … More lies.”

“The gambling and the debt are red flags for suicide, but he could have also been out on that lake trying to figure out how to tell you he’d been fired and how bad your financial troubles were. I know I take to nature to sort out my problems. How would you have reacted to his news?”

The trees gave way to businesses as we neared the city. “I’d have been hurt, but we’d have figured something out. I took a vow, and I meant it. I’m driving myself crazy wondering if it was an accident or a suicide, because knowing the way he died is the only way to know the truth about our life when he was alive. If he could easily lie to me about the gambling and the money, was he lying when he said he loved me?” My breath caught and my hands clenched. “Was our whole marriage one big lie? I can’t get past it, and it makes me … so angry with him. I don’t want to be, but I can’t help it.”

The truck rolled to a stop at a red light. “Sometimes people lie to protect the ones they love,” Cam said.

I narrowed my eyes on him and said sharply, “And sometimes people lie to protect themselves.”

He laughed. “Innocent bystander over here.”

“Sorry,” I said, lening back. “I can’t abide liars, no matter how much the truth hurts.”

Cam took hold of my hand, held it tight. “I wish I had answers for you, Natalie. But all I can ask you is this: Did you love him?”

Did I love him? I thought about the first time I looked into Matt’s blue eyes and my world lit up, and remembered how my world went dark when I found out he was gone. I said, “So much.”

Cam turned into a parking lot and pulled up in front of the medical offices. He let go of my hand to shift into park. “Whatever he did or didn’t do that day on the lake doesn’t change that fact.”

“But it does—”

“No,” he said. “It doesn’t. You’re not angry because you don’t know whether he loved you. You’re angry because you loved him and he left you. Healing will only come when you forgive him for leaving you. And for leaving Ollie.”

What he said hit me straight in the heart, and it hurt like hell. And by the way he said the words, I sensed he knew of what he spoke.

Letting out a breath, I glanced at the dashboard clock and gasped. “I’ve got to go. I’m late.”

“I’ll wait here a few minutes, just in case.”

River’s head came up as I pushed open the door and hopped out. I ran inside the building, found the right office, and wasn’t the least bit shocked when the receptionist told me I’d need to reschedule.

I made an appointment for the following week and went back outside. Cam and River were walking on a strip of grass dividing the parking lot.

“Looks like I get to come back next week,” I said, holding up the appointment card.

Cam threw an arm around my shoulders, pulling me in for a side hug. “I’m real sorry you missed your counseling session.”

So was I. But as I glanced up at him, feeling safe and relaxed at his side, I thought the ride down here with him might have been just the kind of therapy I needed.

14

 

Anna Kate

By the time Friday rolled around, my days had settled into a comfortable routine. Early mornings were spent in the garden, collecting herbs, vegetables, and flowers, and then Gideon would come by for coffee before Bow and Jena arrived. The café took up most of my day, as I worked from seven until three. Having Natalie in the café part-time had helped immensely—what she lacked in skills, she made up for with her work ethic. I found that I enjoyed having her around. She had a gentle nature that set me at ease, and she was sweet and funny and nothing at all like I thought a Linden would be. I liked her. Summer, I noticed, had taken a liking to her as well—once Jena had enlisted them to help find the gray cat she’d seen sneak inside one afternoon when the back door had been propped open.

Had it been a coincidence that Jena had been the only one to see the cat, who supposedly ran in just as Summer was dropping off eggs?

Or that Natalie and Summer had been accidentally locked together in the laundry room for a short while during the search?

I didn’t think so.

That Jena was a wily one.

She’d been grinning ear to ear when Natalie and Summer were finally freed and emerged talking about vintage apron patterns.

In the late afternoons, I spent time making pies, tinkering with food and herbal tea recipes using some of the morning’s bounty, clearing weeds from the garden, and making the rounds among the birders.

To my amazement, Sir Bird Nerd was still in town. He’d disappeared for a day, but then came back with a small motor home, which he was parking on Pebbles’s land. If the blackbirds were a museum, Zachariah Boyd would be their docent. He was the go-to guy for information on the birds’ nighttime ritual, a veritable one-man information kiosk. Every birder who arrived, whether it was a quick stop or a multiday excursion, ended up talking to Mr. Boyd. Honestly, I should probably put the man on the payroll, as there had been a nonstop stream of visitors.

The blackbirds were singing regularly, and there would come a time, I knew, that I wouldn’t wait up to hear them anymore, but I wasn’t there yet. It meant less sleep, but I’d never been one who needed much. The songs were worth any fatigue I felt throughout the day.

I currently had four pies in the double ovens and was outside checking on the mulberry trees before I started weeding. Another day or two, and Summer and I’d lay a tarp down beneath the trees and shake the branches to release the ripened fruit, which was almost black.

I set to work on the weeds, sorting what could be thrown in the compost pile versus what I could use in the kitchen. Dandelions were keepers. Crabgrass could go. I was talking to the zucchini plants, telling them about Doc Linden’s latest supper invitation—he, with his sad eyes and unhealthy coloring, had begun stopping at the café most mornings for a cup of coffee to go—when I heard a rustling sound behind me. I turned, hoping I wouldn’t find a snake slithering out to enjoy the late afternoon sunshine. I liked most creatures and knew many snakes were harmless, but I preferred to keep my distance.

By a mile or two.

Instead of something slithery, not a foot away, I found the gray cat watching me.

“Hello there.” I held out my fingers for him to sniff, but he didn’t budge. Up close he appeared well fed, but he had a few scars other than the one on his ear. One ran across his scalp, and there was a long, thick jagged one on his back left leg. “Are you hungry? Thirsty?”

I stood up to find him some water, and he wiggled an ear and strode off toward the back of the yard. He stopped, looked back at me, then took two more steps.

Surely he didn’t want me to follow him again. I wasn’t lost here in Zee’s garden—where could he possibly lead me?

He took another step, stopped.

“Okay,” I said, leaving my basket where it was on the gravel pathway, “I’m up for the adventure.”

The cat always stayed two or three steps ahead of me as he led me along the fence at the back of the yard, past the mulberry trees, toward the property line I shared with Gideon.

With a graceful leap, the cat landed on the top iron rail that ran horizontally along the fencing. He paused long enough to make sure I was behind him, then continued on his merry way, tail in the air. I glanced back at the café, at the birders, at my sanity—all of which I’d clearly left behind.

In the rear corner of the yard, he paused. When I caught up to him, I saw he’d stopped at a gate I hadn’t noticed before now. It opened into the woods behind the yard. All this time, I thought Gideon had been hopping the fence back here. I unhooked the latch. The gate creaked as I pushed it open and clicked soundly in place when I closed it behind me.

When I turned around, the cat was already strutting through the woods. The scent of wild garlic filled the air as the cat scurried toward the lush green lawn behind Hill House, a two-story wood-framed I-house that was as pretty from the rear as it was from the front. Gideon had given me a full run-down on the architecture when I admired the house earlier this week.

I walked around a screened-in gazebo and along a path flanked with colorful annuals that led to a stone patio shaded by a pergola covered in climbing trumpet vines. Hummingbirds flitted around the vibrant red blooms, and I heard the phoebe singing nearby.

I quick-stepped to keep up with the cat. “I’m pretty sure this is trespassing,” I called after him.

“Anna Kate?”

Embarrassed to be caught sneaking around, I froze. “Gideon?”

“Up here.”

Shading my eyes with my hand, I looked up. Gideon stood on the edge of the roof. Feeling suddenly woozy at seeing him up there, I said, “Could you back up a step? You’re making me nervous being that close to the edge.”

“Do you have a fear of heights?” he asked.

“It’s not so much of heights as falling.”

“It is a long way down, isn’t it?” He took a step back. “I’m guessing thirty feet at least. I’ve had some time to consider exactly how far it is, since I’ve been up here going on an hour now.”

“What are you doing?”

“Having a heart to heart with a squirrel. She was trying to make a nest in the chimney, but I talked her out of it and suggested the loblolly behind you would be a better, safer option.”

I glanced that way and sure enough, there was a squirrel running along a high branch, leaves in her mouth. “Are you staying up there in case she changes her mind and comes back?”

He laughed. “No. I’m up here because my ladder fell. Don’t suppose you could grab it for me? It’s on the other side of the house.”

I walked around the corner and saw an aluminum extension ladder laying in the grass.

“It’s not the easiest to handle on your own,” he warned.

I lifted an end, judging whether I needed help. “I think I can manage.” It took some doing, but I propped the ladder against the house without breaking anything. The house or me. A small miracle, that.

I held the ladder as he came down, the metal vibrating under my palms. With two rungs left, he jumped to the ground, and wiped his hands on his jeans. His dark T-shirt was soaked to his skin, and his hair was damp with sweat.

“Thank you. You couldn’t have come along at a better time. I was just contemplating how much damage would be done if I tried jumping onto the pergola.”

“To you or the pergola?”

“Both,” he said, flashing a smile.

His face had a bright pink tinge to it. “Looks like you’ve got yourself quite a sunburn. Do you have any aloe?”

“I’m sure I do.”

“Fresh aloe?”

“I’m sure I don’t.”

“Zee has an aloe plant in her living room. I can harvest some gel.”

He rested his hands on his hips. “Her living room. Not yours?”

I lifted a shoulder. “I think it will always be Zee’s, and that’s okay. I don’t mind being its caretaker for a while.”

He opened his mouth to say something, then apparently changed his mind. He’d often done the same during our coffee chats, as though he were holding something back. I didn’t want to needle him about whatever it was on his mind—he’d get there in his own time.

He rested a hand on the ladder. “Out of curiosity, what brought you by here?”

I hesitated only slightly before saying, “I was following a cat.” Who was nowhere to be seen now.

“A cat?”

“He’s big and gray with milky gray-blue eyes. I’ve seen him a couple of times in Zee’s garden. Do you know who he belongs to?”

He smiled. “I think he mostly belonged to Zee. She told me he showed up at the café one night, a long time ago, and never left. He prefers to be outside and tends to do his own thing.”

“Shouldn’t he have a collar with tags? Has he had a checkup? Shouldn’t he be neutered? You know, protect the whole pet population thing.”

“Let me guess, you watched a lot of Price Is Right when you were younger.”

“I watched a lot of everything when I was younger. Books and TV were some of my closest friends.” I winced, realizing how much I’d revealed. “I was a latchkey kid. My mom worked a lot.”

“Me, too,” he said. “And mine, too.” As he lowered the ladder, he added, “Zee tried to put a collar with a bell on the cat once, and it didn’t go so well. Be careful of his claws if you give it a try.”

“Does he have a name?” I asked.

“Zee always called him Mr. Cat.”

It kind of fit, though I was starting to think Lassie would work too, considering Mr. Cat seemed to have a knack for rescues. With me in the woods last week, and today with Gideon.

“Mr. Cat it is. I’ll start putting some food out for him, and see if I can lure him to the vet.” I took a step backward, toward the woods. “I should get going, I have pies in the oven.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “Anna Kate, what are you doing tonight?”

Smiling, I said, “More pies, and I have some aloe to scrape …”

“Have you eaten dinner?”

For some reason my palms started to sweat. “Not yet.”

“How about we pack a dinner, picnic-style, and take it to the Movie in the Moonlight tonight?”

For a moment there, I was caught up in the way he was looking at me. That deep intensity mixed with a hint of playfulness and a touch of heat.

I swallowed hard. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. There’s probably going to be a lot of people there,” I said, thinking arm’s length might not be far enough away from that alluring gaze of his. “They’ll stare.”

“Sure, people might stare a while, since you’re a novelty right now. But the only way to get them to stop is to give them their fill. Besides, most everyone has already stopped by the café this week.”

Not Seelie Linden, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the chance of running into her. After all, Natalie had mentioned she was a big-wig with the Refresh Committee.

“Once the movie starts, people won’t stop to talk to you. It’d be rude. People around here would rather eat soap than be openly ill-mannered. And I’ll be there as a buffer.”

He made good points. Still …

“Beauty and the Beast is the movie tonight. You know you love that library scene.”

It was true—I did. My head tipped side to side as if weighing my decision.

“Come on,” he said with a big, hopeful smile. “What’s better than watching a movie under the stars on a beautiful summer night?”

I could feel myself being reeled in. A night out, under the stars, did sound nice. Minus the people, of course. I searched his honeycolored eyes, looking for any reason to keep saying no. All I saw was kindness and that touch of heat shimmering in the brown depths. “Okay,” I said, relenting to the power of his charm. “But only if you let me pack the basket.”

“Nope. I asked, I’m doing the packing. Hope you don’t mind cold corn dogs,” he teased.

I smiled. “You have to let me bring something.”

“Okay, drinks are on you,” he said finally.

“I can do that.”

“Then it’s a da—” He abruptly cut himself off. “Then I’ll pick you up at six forty-five.”

“I’ll be ready.”

As I walked off, toward the woods and the way I’d come, his words echoed in my ears.

It’s a da—

Date. He’d been about to say date.

He hadn’t—and it wasn’t a date, I told myself as I slipped through the back gate. It was simply two people going to see a movie together.

I should have been happy about that, considering the arm’s length of it all.

But as I headed into the café to check on the pies, I couldn’t deny that I was the tiniest bit disappointed.

 *       *       *  

“Over here! Yoo-hoo, Anna Kate, honey!” In the distance Faylene Wiggins stood on tiptoes and waved her outstretched arms like she was flagging down a B-52.

“I think someone is trying to get your attention,” Gideon said, keeping close.

So close I could feel the heat of his body. I’d have stepped away to give myself some breathing room, but there wasn’t anywhere to go. The lawn leading to the amphitheater was packed with people in line at the snack stand, for the portable restrooms, and searching for a patch of lawn to stake a claim.

There was still an hour until official sunset, but the sun was already sinking behind the mountain, casting Wicklow into an early twilight. Fireflies—or lightning bugs, as people around here called them— flickered, small bursts of light that made me smile, thinking of how Zee always told me the bugs lit up because they were magical.

I still believed that to be true.

“Plenty of room for y’all!” Faylene yelled, still waving.

I pretended to scan the crowd. “I don’t see anyone ”

Laughing, he placed his hand on the small of my back and steered me toward Faylene. “I hope you didn’t want to sit elsewhere, because I don’t think she would stand for it.”

“I don’t mind.” There was a natural effervescence to Faylene, with her chatty personality and her big laugh. She should have been overwhelming, but her boisterous disposition often turned people’s attention on her taking it off me. I had the feeling she knew exactly what she was doing, too, and that made me like her all the more.

Trying my best to ignore Gideon’s hand at my spine, I held tightly onto a small lunch cooler I’d found in one of Zee’s closets. Inside the cooler were two thermoses full of blackberry sweet tea, my first batch made using Mr. Pavegeau’s recipe, and a stack of paper cups. The tea was delicious, if I did say so myself. And Aubin had been right—it had brought a taste of happiness.

When Gideon and I reached Faylene’s landing zone, she pressed her hands together and smiled brightly. “I’m tickled to see you two here together. Just tickled.” She eyed us as though sizing us up for wedding clothes.

“It’s a beautiful night for a movie, isn’t it?” Gideon said.

I admired the way he completely ignored her innuendo that we were here on a date, though I didn’t think Faylene would give up without knowing for certain if we were or weren’t.

“Nicest one yet this spring,” she said, winking at me.

Spring. It felt like we should be well into summer by now, with the way it had been so hot. The official change of seasons, however, wasn’t for another few weeks.

Faylene then gestured to the group of people behind her, gathered on three overlapping blankets. “Anna Kate, you know Marcy and Lindy-Lou, right?”

“I do.” They’d stopped into the café a few times this week.

“And that there hiding behind the camera is Cam Kolbaugh, Josh’s brother. He’s our resident mountain man and wildlife photographer. Josh went for pizza across the street and will be along soon enough.” I was glad to hear that Josh would be around tonight. I hoped he was just the big bear of a policeman I needed to help me get hold of an old police report. Namely, my parents’ accident report.

I said my hellos to everyone and smiled at Lindy-Lou, who was sound asleep next to Marcy, a light blanket draped over her tiny body. She had her thumb stuck in her mouth, and peach-fuzz hair that reminded me of a baby bird stuck up in downy tufts.

“It’s a rough life she leads,” Marcy said, following my gaze.

“I’m amazed she can sleep with all the noise.”

Faylene took the blanket Gideon brought out of his arms. She flipped it open, spread it between her quilt and a magnolia tree, and then bent down to pull the blanket’s edges taut. “Haven’t seen this place this crowded in decades. It’s all them birdwatchers. I suppose they don’t have anything better to do until midnight.”

Marcy grinned and said to me, “Lindy-Lou’s real used to blocking out loud noises.”

Faylene’s eyes narrowed in confusion, then she let out a laugh. She swatted playfully at her daughter. “You hush now.”

“Me, hush?” Marcy said with faux outrage, and Faylene laughed again.

It was clear the two adored each other, and their good humor set me immediately at ease.

“Y’all, sit, sit,” Faylene said.

“You’ve picked a prime spot up here,” I said, kneeling down. The sweet scent of magnolia blossoms hovered in the air, holding strong against the popcorn smell coming from the snack stand.

Faylene eyed the basket Gideon carried. “What have you there?”

Gideon lifted the basket flaps and said, “I promised Anna Kate a picnic dinner, and I think I delivered pretty well. Crispy buttermilk fried chicken, flaky hand pies, pasta salad, and shortbread cookies for dessert.”

“Wooing Anna Kate right, I see.” Faylene laughed. “Seems like you already know the way to that girl’s heart and you haven’t even known her a full two weeks yet.”

Gideon flushed three shades of red as he pulled plates out of the basket. I’d known Faylene wouldn’t give up so easily. He could have saved himself a lot of teasing if he’d simply told her we weren’t here on a date, but oddly, he kept quiet.

“He’s wooing me right,” Marcy said, craning her neck for a look in the basket.

“Me, too,” Cam said. “Did you say fried chicken?”

Gideon handed over a plate. “I brought plenty.”

“Good gosh, Gideon. If I wasn’t married,” Marcy said, picking up a thigh.

Faylene chose a breast. “I’m not going to tell Josh you said that.”

“Have you tasted the chicken yet? You can tell him,” she said. “He’d probably throw me over for Gideon’s cooking in a heartbeat, given that I can’t cook a can of beans without burning them.”

Cam was in mid-reach for a leg when he froze, his gaze caught on something over my shoulder. I turned to see Natalie threading through the crowd, a stuffed diaper bag draped over her shoulder and Ollie, dressed in a yellow Belle costume, in her arms. I looked back at Cam. He saw me watching him and quickly looked away, completely forgetting the chicken as he suddenly fussed with his camera settings.

“Oh, lookie there!” Faylene said, waving a chicken breast in the air. “It’s Natalie! Yoo-hoo! Over here!”

Natalie blinked and then smiled as she veered in our direction. She blew a loose strand of hair off her face. “Can you get claustrophobic outside?”

“I think you can in this crowd,” Marcy said. “Do you know Cam, Natalie?”

He looked up from his camera, smiled. “We go way back. Hi, Natalie.”

“Hey, Cam.” She glanced around. “Where’s River?”

“Pouting at home. No pets allowed to this shindig,” he said.

“That’s too bad.” Natalie shifted Ollie from one hip to another. “Does anyone mind if we sit a second?”

“Come on down, sugar. There’s plenty of room next to Cam,” Faylene said, eyeing the two of them.

There was plenty of room next to Marcy, me, and Gideon as well. Faylene was a matchmaker at heart—I could tell.

Cam shifted, looping his camera strap around his neck, and he smiled as Natalie set Ollie down on his blanket.

“Hihi!” Ollie flapped an arm at him. She had a green toy tractor clutched in her hand.

“Hey, Ollie.” Cam waved back. “What’re you holding there?”

“Tactor!” she said, proudly showing it to him.

“I couldn’t get her to leave it at home.” Natalie sat down, taking care to tuck her dress around her legs. “It’s clear who makes the decisions in our house.”

Cam held out his hand to Ollie. “Can I drive it?”

She stared up at him, her brown eyes big and round. And then, as if finally deciding he was trustworthy, she handed it over.

He took the toy and drove it up her leg and arm with exaggerated machinery sounds. Her joyous giggles echoed, and I watched Natalie’s face as she watched her daughter. The naked emotion made me want to walk over and give her a hug. Arm’s length was getting more and more difficult where she was concerned. And little Ollie had won my heart the first time I met her.

On the days Natalie worked, Faylene dropped Ollie off at the café at closing time, and I’d found myself looking forward to her arrival. I’d missed her yesterday, when Natalie had an appointment down in Fort Payne and shared that it was with a grief counselor. It had been such a busy day, there hadn’t been a chance to ask her how it had gone.

Faylene said, “If you’re hungry, Natalie, Gideon brought loads of food, on account of him trying to woo Anna Kate.”

Natalie’s gaze flew to mine, and I gave a small shake of my head. She smiled. “Is that homemade fried chicken? Must be he’s in love already.”

Faylene nodded. “This is what I’m sayin’. It’s plain as day to anyone with eyes.”

Gideon looked pointedly at Natalie. “Just when I was going to tell you that it’s nice to have you back in town. Now I’m not so sure.”

It struck me as odd that Gideon hadn’t caught up with Natalie before now, but then again, she tended to keep to herself even more than I did, and with his early morning visits to the café, he was long gone well before she started her shifts.

She laughed. “I do like your honesty, Gideon. It’s an important quality in a mate, Anna Kate. Top of the list.”

Gideon hung his head and groaned.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, picking at the edge of the blanket.

“Hihi!” Ollie ran forward and flung herself at me.

I was caught off guard, and she nearly knocked me over. “Hi, Ollie.” I laughed as she settled herself in my lap, snuggling in close. I set her princess dress to rights and tried to soak in as much of her joy before she flung herself at someone else.

“I’m glad I ran into you, Faylene,” Natalie said, unzipping the diaper bag. “I was hoping I would. I finally have those headbands you ordered for Lindy-Lou. Sorry it took me longer than I thought.”

Faylene wiped her greasy hands with a wet nap and said, “I wasn’t expecting them for another week or two, honey, so don’t you worry none.” Faylene made quick work of opening the tissue-wrapped package. She gasped. “Oh, Natalie! These are precious. Absolutely precious.”

They were. There were three headbands in varying thicknesses, covered in colorful patterned fabric and decorated with large flowers. I recognized the style as one Ollie wore often. It was easy to see that Natalie had a great eye for color and patterns.

Ollie wasn’t wearing a headband tonight, however. Her soft hair was down and loose and smelled faintly of chlorine and sunshine. She pushed off me to reclaim her tractor from Cam and then went about driving it over Gideon’s head. He didn’t seem to mind, which made me like him even more than I already did.

“Ollie,” Natalie warned. “Not on the top of his head, please.”

Ollie barely broke stride as she shifted to running the tractor over his face instead.

“To be fair,” he said, laughing, “it’s not the top of my head.”

Natalie smiled, then asked Ollie to please move her playing to the ground.

Cam, I noticed, had stood up and started taking pictures. Of us, the crowd, the fireflies. Every so often, he’d lower the camera and I’d see his gaze wander to Natalie.

Almost as much as I saw Natalie’s gaze wander to him.

Maybe Faylene was on to something with pairing them up.

Marcy took one of the headbands Faylene held. “These are beautiful, Natalie. The craftsmanship is outstanding. Most headbands are flimsy and not nearly full of this much personality. Could you make more of them? I can sell them at Hodgepodge on consignment.”

“Really?” Natalie asked. “That would be great.”

“Come by tomorrow. We’ll work out the details. Oh my word, are these individual petals on this flower?”

With a pleased smile, Natalie looked to be glowing from the inside out. “They are. Adding them piecemeal allows me to mix and match fabrics and textures. Gives it more visual interest, I think.”

“I’ll say so,” Marcy said, eyeing her sleeping daughter as though wanting to try one of the headbands on her right away, but then seeming to dismiss the idea as quickly as it came. “I’ll need more for Lindy-Lou as well. They’re darling.”

Faylene puffed up as she looked between Natalie and her daughter. She pulled her shoulders back and held her chin high, looking like a proud mama hen. “C’mon, let’s get you something to eat, honey,” she said to Natalie. “I wasn’t kidding about all the food Gideon brought.”

“She really wasn’t,” he said over his shoulder. “Help yourself.”

Shifting on the blanket, Natalie said, “I wish I could, but I can’t stay but a minute more. My parents will be along shortly, and Ollie and I will be sitting with them for the movie.”

My stomach went sour at the mere thought of seeing Doc and Seelie. I’d known it had been a risk coming here tonight, but now I wanted nothing more than to run.

“Have you met Seelie yet, Anna Kate?” Faylene asked. I wiped my hands on my shorts. “No.”

I didn’t know, upon seeing her, how I was going to react. As much as I told myself to keep any meeting civil, to act distant, cold even, I didn’t know if I could do it. There were twenty-four years of bottled-up emotions stuck inside me. Holding back those feelings wasn’t going to be easy.

Faylene let out a low whistle and looked around as if sizing up escape routes.

As Ollie continued to zoom her tractor around the blanket, Gideon said, “Do you want to leave, Anna Kate?”

My mouth went dry as they all watched me, waiting for my answer. As much as I wanted to stand up and run all the way back to the café to avoid making any kind of spectacle here tonight, it might be better if my grandmother and I met this way, when I had all this support behind me.

“No,” I finally said. “Might as well get it over with, right?”

Faylene coughed. “That’s real brave of you, Anna Kate.”

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Marcy said. “I’ve never met a woman more southern than Seelie Earl Linden. The last thing she’ll do is make a scene. Especially with all these people around. She’d rather dig her own grave and throw herself in.”

It wasn’t Seelie I was afraid of making a scene. It was me. “Maybe we should go,” I said to Gideon.

Without missing a beat, he started packing up the basket. Faylene helped. Natalie, too.

My pulse raced as I tugged at the blanket, trying to get it out from under Gideon while he was still sitting on it.

Ollie came over and held her hand out. “Tactor?”

“Thank you, Ollie,” I said, crouching to her level. “Buyou should hold on to it.”

Her sweet face crumpled. “Tactor!”

I quickly took it from her. “Thank you. Vroom, vroom.” I ran the tractor over her feet and she laughed.

For a second, all was right in my world. There was something about Ollie’s happiness, her laughter, that brought me peace. I wanted to stay in this moment forever.

But then her eyes went wide at something she saw behind me, and she yelled, “Gaddy!”

“Oh no,” Marcy whispered. “Too late.”

I looked behind me in time to see Doc Linden lift Ollie into his arms. Seelie stood at his side. I slowly stood up to face, head-on, the woman who’d sent my mother through hell.

Seelie didn’t look like I had imagined, either. In my mind, she’d resembled an evil queen from a children’s fairy tale. Tall with high, sharp cheekbones, pointed chin, thin lips. Beady dark eyes, dark hair in a tight bun, long bloodred fingernails.

Seelie was none of those things. She was about my height, five foot seven, with white-blond hair that had cinnamon highlights. A heartshaped face was aging gracefully. Her large blue eyes flew open when she spotted me, and then narrowed on the tractor I held, before lifting to meet my gaze once again. Her hand went straight to a double strand of pearls, gripping them tightly.

My heart pounded as I searched for something, anything, to say and found nothing at all.

Seelie’s gaze didn’t waver from my face as it swept from feature to feature. She swayed and Doc grabbed onto her arm to hold her steady.

“She … AJ. Oh my Lord,” Seelie said so softly I almost didn’t hear her.

“Mama?” Natalie said, coming up beside me.

As Seelie continued to stare at me, she blinked, once, twice, and pools of tears gathered in her eyes but didn’t fall. She took a furtive look around and saw everyone nearby watching her. Watching us. Abruptly, she turned on her heels and rushed off.

Doc handed Ollie to Natalie and went after his wife.

“Bye! Bye!” Ollie waved her arm.

Stunned, I watched Seelie go, feeling a mix of relief …and confusing sadness. I hadn’t seen the evilness I’d expected in her eyes. Or any cold, calculating intentions.

I’d seen only the sudden, heartbreaking realization of all she had lost.

And there was nothing remotely satisfying in that.

Because in that moment of locking eyes with her, I suddenly realized all I’d lost, too. It was a devastating feeling.

“Well, look at that,” Faylene said with an awestruck sigh as she came up next to Natalie and me. “I didn’t think it was possible, but Anna Kate’s done it. With just one look, she managed to crack Seelie’s steely core flat open. And I’ll be damned if there wasn’t a heart hiding in there after all.”

NEXT: Chapters 15 & 16 

 

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