Here's an excerpt. I hope you enjoy it.
Have a great day!
“This was a bad move, a major mistake. I can’t believe I’m doing this.” Sarah Tucker’s head pounded. She turned the steering wheel, rounding a curve. Most women who were nearing thirty were leaving home, but not her. No, she was returning to her hometown after nearly twelve years away, and she didn’t want to think about the reasons why.
Pulling up at the stop sign just before one of the last few turns leading to the town of Gold Tree, Wisconsin, Sarah popped the clutch and wrestled the aging beige rustmobile through the gears, negotiating the snaking road. In the winter the road would be slippery with snow that threatened to send a car skidding into the trees, but in the July heat, the tires clung to the asphalt and held tight into the turns.
Ever since she’d made the decision to come home a headache had been threatening, and now the pain blossomed. The steering wheel thrummed beneath her fingers. The licorice road with its yellow center stripes was like a rope pulling her back into the past.
Her younger years had been ordinary, even happy...right up until that day when she had been ten and had had her first vision. After that her world had changed, and nothing had ever been ordinary or right again, especially where her father was concerned. She had turned into his golden goose, no longer free, until she’d finally bolted just after her eighteenth birthday.
She hadn’t been back since. When she’d lost the baby she’d been carrying by a boy who had promised her everything and then left her with nothing, she had swallowed the grief that threatened to consume her and continued to run, knowing that her father and the boy weren’t unique. There were others who would use her or any offspring she might have. A normal life wasn’t in the stars for someone like her.
She passed the road leading to Lake Apple. She was getting close now. The pain in her head seemed to increase. Ridiculous, she told herself. It’s just nerves.
Probably because her communication with home these past twelve years had been sporadic and stilted. There were days early on when she would have liked to have had the chance to see her mother and little sister, but her father had made it clear that he would not provide the funds for anyone to visit her, and if she came home, she did so on his terms. That meant using her special talents to find missing objects or people who sometimes turned out to be dead. All for money. It meant living with nightmares, so she’d kept her distance.
And yet, here she was, headed toward Gold Tree.
“Not quite the conquering heroine marching into town wearing jewels and a tiara, either,” she said, rubbing one aching temple. “I can see the headlines of the Gold Tree Weekly now. Sarah Tucker Returns Home Almost Broke, Completely Homeless, Jobless and in the Company of a Questionable Companion,” she said, turning toward the passenger seat, wrinkling her nose. “What do you think?”
Her companion wagged his tail.
Sarah smiled wearily. “Yeah, pretty unlikely. I’m yesterday’s news now. I doubt anyone here cares about my former quirks. And yes, I’m sorry for the insulting comment, Smooch. You’re the best companion a woman could have.”
She looked at the big dog strapped in the low, torn bucket seat. Smooch, a gold and brown mutt of indeterminate ancestry, was a mass of wayward, fuzzy fur. His right ear looked as if it had been chewed on many times by other dog bullies, and it probably had. He had the words “street tough” written all over his wiry, scarred body, and he had undoubtedly lived a violent and abused life before Sarah had pulled him from the animal shelter, brought him home and finally coaxed him to tolerate her company. Still, despite his checkered past and the fact that he had every reason to distrust humans, his big brown eyes held no accusation and plenty of unabashed loyalty and devotion, his body wriggling just at the sound of her voice. He was the only male she had ever known who had not passed judgment on her or tried to use her. And he didn’t care about her particular talents or even if she had any talents at all. For that alone she loved him.
“Stick with me, pal, and sooner or later I’ll find us a good home,” she promised, throwing out a hand. “For now, we’ve got to stop here for a few weeks.”
And she wasn’t just stopping because her bank account was starving, her boss in California had closed his antique shop to retire, leaving her out of work, or because her landlord had raised the rent and instituted a no-pets policy, even though those were both good reasons for coming home.
If that had been the case, she would have been here six months ago for her father’s funeral. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to do it, not even when she found out that he had left her the shop, Tucker’s Lost & Found Emporium. It was the last place she ever wanted to go. He had probably known that and left it to her as a final punishment.
Instead, she had ignored the bequest...until the taxes had come due. With almost no money in her pockets, it was obvious she would have to do something.
She’d tried to think positively. Her life these past few years hunting down antiques for hungry dealers had been mostly good. The fact that she’d met with a few setbacks lately was just life. She’d reasoned that she could sell the shop, handling the transaction from afar.
Then yesterday her mother had called. Madeline Tucker never called. She had to be the world’s most retiring woman and had never made any demands of Sarah in her life.
“I think your sister, Cass, is in trouble. I think she might be...becoming like you. I wish...I wish you would please come home,” was all her mother had said.
It was the first time in all these years that her mother had said the words “come home” or implied that Sarah might be needed. Her request, her worries about Cass hung in the air, and this time Sarah couldn’t stay away despite the fact that she didn’t even know her younger sister. Cass had only been six when Sarah had left home.
Becoming like you. Sarah knew what her mother meant. If what she said was true, then Sarah had to help Cass, because no one else could truly understand. Cass must be frightened. Sarah knew every bad thing that went along with her gift. She knew the fear of seeing things not meant to be seen and the horrified looks of the townspeople when they learned about her gift. Maybe she could protect Cass in some way or at least teach her how to handle a situation the way she wished there had been someone to help her.
Sarah rounded the last curve, the big pine trees bending low over the car. She breathed in the heady scent of woods, of green, of earth, of long-lost little- girl memories. The good ones, the only ones she planned to allow herself.
“We’re home, Smooch,” she said. “I might not want to be here, but it can’t be helped, so we’ll do the best we can. We’ll settle here for a few weeks, see if we can help Cass if that’s possible. We’ll use this as our base until we regroup and find a new place to stay.”
In the meantime, she was going to do her best to make lemonade out of the lemons she had been given and come to terms with her past, maybe even rid herself of the nightmares at last. She would take that shop her father had left her and rip it apart, shred it, sell it.
And this time when she left, it would be because she had chosen to leave town, not because she had no choice. This time things would be different, better.
Sarah stopped and got out of the car a half mile outside of town. She looked up, up, way up into the crests of the tall pines that swayed with the wind and brushed at the town with their branches.
“I’m back,” she declared to no one in particular. Yes, the witch of Gold Tree was back, but with one major difference. She had submerged the clairsentient powers that had cursed her all her life. In doing so, she had finally, finally lost them.
She could touch something nowadays and not feel a thing out of the ordinary other than a slight pain behind her eyes, no worse than a mild sinus headache.
She was glad. At last she was free. And no man would ever chain her up, tie her down or try to use her again. No man would ever have a hold on her or any say over her life.
In fact, if she played her cards right, men would only play a marginal role in her life.
~ ~ ~
Officer Luke Packard surveyed the scene before him and immediately swung into action, grabbing for his radio.
“Ben, get an ambulance over to the Tucker place pronto,” he said, dropping to his knees beside Madeline Tucker. She was lying at a crooked angle at the bottom of the stairs. Her ankle was swelling, she had a lump on her head and she was blinking as if she didn't know who he was. He didn't like any of this.
“Luke?” she asked, her voice weak.
He managed a small smile. “Well, welcome back to the world of the living, neighbor,” he said. “When I heard that you were hurt, I was pretty worried.” He decided not to mention the fact that Madeline’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Cass, had delivered the news that her mother had fallen, and then Cass had immediately disappeared. As a concerned friend, he needed to know what that was about, but now was not the time to ask.
Madeline tried to sit up.
“Mad, no,” he told her. “You were unconscious when I came in, and there’s definitely something wrong with your ankle. No sitting up until the doctor says it’s all right, and that’s not going to happen until the ambulance arrives.”
A look of distress came over Madeline’s face. Normally she didn't look her age, which was probably fifty-something, but right now her pallor and the worry lines on her forehead made her seem much older.
“Where’s Cass? Where’s Danny?” she asked, referring to her daughter and Luke’s son, whom she’d been babysitting. Her voice broke.
“Not here, but Cass is the one who called me to the scene. She dropped Danny off at the police station, and Jemma is adding looking after him to her clerking duties. He’s fine.” He didn’t tell her that Cass was fine, because he didn't know. Again he wondered what had happened here and why Cass hadn't come home.
Madeline gave a tight nod of her head. Her hands clenched. She looked as if she might cry. He almost closed his eyes. He’d seen so many women in pain. His mother, every time his abusive father had beaten her, his wife when she’d realized he didn't love her. He didn't want to ever see another woman hurting, but of course he would. He was a cop. He didn't get to turn away. In fact, part of the reason he’d gone into law enforcement was to be able to protect women who were in danger, to try to prevent some of the tragedies he had seen.
“Want to tell me what happened here?” he asked quietly.
He saw a slight flicker in her eyes and knew what that meant. He’d seen it too many times. She was going to either lie or give him an edited version of the facts.
“Nothing. Cass and I argued a little and I wasn't paying attention and slipped on the stairs. But I can’t go to the hospital, Luke. Sarah is coming. I have to be here.”
“I’ll leave a note on the door.”
“No, you don’t understand—”
He did, at least a little. Sarah was Madeline’s other daughter, the one who had apparently run away at eighteen and been gone for a dozen years. The prodigal daughter was finally returning home.
“If she comes and I’m not here...if no one’s here...”
Luke withheld a sigh. He really needed to get Madeline to a doctor, to find out if she was all right. He’d had too many experiences with people who thought they were fine and then weren't. His wife had died while insisting that she didn't need or want to go to the hospital. Besides, Madeline wasn't just another person he was sworn to serve and protect. She was his neighbor, his friend. “I’ll stay and wait here for your daughter,” he promised.
Madeline didn't stop frowning. “I don’t know exactly when she’ll be here.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll stay.”
“Don’t you have work?”
Tons. Today he’d been in the office catching up on paperwork. “Don’t worry. That won’t be a problem.”
She bit her lip. “I wanted to be here when Sarah showed up,” she said, her voice a desperate whisper. Luke’s heart ripped a bit. He didn't have a clue how she felt. He’d only been a father for two years, and he’d never faced the prospect of his son growing up, walking out the door one day and not coming back for twelve years, but Madeline was clearly in pain, both physical and mental.
“I’ll ask the medics if they can move things along and get you back here quickly,” he promised. “But if things get held up, I can bring your daughter to the hospital.”
Suddenly her eyes were shocked and stricken. “Oh, no, I don’t want to bother her like that. Or you,” she amended.
And what the hell did that mean? She was hurt, and she didn't want to be a bother to her adult daughter? What kind of a daughter was this Sarah, anyway?
But he had no business asking that kind of a question of his neighbor, and anyway, within seconds the ambulance appeared, sirens blaring.
“I’ll wait for her,” he promised again as the paramedics wheeled Madeline away and the ambulance headed for the hospital.
~ ~ ~
An hour later a battered beige sedan appeared as a dot on the horizon. Might be the daughter. By then, Madeline’s announcement to the paramedics, nurses and aides that her eldest daughter was coming home at last had had its effect. The lines of communication had started to buzz with whatever memories people could dredge up from twelve years ago and beyond.
His cell phone had already rung more times than he cared to think about with townspeople wanting to know if Sarah had shown up yet. Some of them seemed eager to drop hints about her past.
Apparently Sarah Tucker was more than just your run-of-the-mill prodigal daughter. She was a woman with a colorful and questionable past. There was also some nonsense about her being a psychic.
Luke frowned. He had a personal aversion to the word psychic. Maybe if he’d given his wife the love she needed, she wouldn't have taken up with her psychic friend, and she wouldn’t have refused to go to the doctor when he’d thought she was ill but the friend had insisted she was fine. If he’d loved Iris enough, maybe she wouldn't have died of a blood clot two days after coming home from giving birth to Danny.
Not that the psychic friend was the only one to blame for Iris’s death. He’d made unforgivable mistakes, but that still didn't absolve people who bandied about that load-of-crap psychic title and pretended to know things no human could possibly know.
Turn it off, Packard, he told himself. Get it together. Remember who you are and what your duties are and where your loyalties lie. Remember what’s important.
It was a mantra he’d been repeating to himself ever since he’d assumed sole responsibility for his son and ever since he’d taken this job in Gold Tree a year ago. He was the law in this town, a community representative. No matter what his personal feelings were, he had a duty to every member of this town and to every visitor.
What’s more, Madeline was his friend who babysat his son, and the woman causing the buzz, the woman he was dreading to meet, was her daughter.
Sarah Tucker would be arriving soon and he was going to have to be the official welcoming committee. He intended to do it right, even if it meant battling the beasts that lived within him.
Sarah pulled into her mother’s pebbled driveway, immediately noted the police officer sitting on the front steps, and her heart started to do that nervous thud that she hated.
This was so silly. There was no reason for her nervousness. It wasn't as if she had a problem with authority figures.
“I don’t,” she said, pretending to say the words to Smooch but knowing that it was herself she was trying to convince. Hey, she could deal with authority figures. She did it all the time where her boss and her landlord were concerned. It was just that the uniform made her nervous. Sarah had had only one experience with the police, but it had been a vivid one. That long-ago day when she had first had a vision of Pattie Dubeaux, the little girl who had been missing and whose body Sarah had found at the lake’s edge. The police officer in charge had questioned her mercilessly. The memory had stuck.
This guy isn't him, she reminded herself. Which was absolutely true, but then why was he here?
Turning to Smooch, she freed him, then climbed from the car and let him out to sniff his new surroundings. She wished she could take some time to acclimate herself, too, but the police officer was waiting, unfolding his long, lanky frame from the steps and moving toward her. His dark uniform, his height and dark hair all served to make him look very official and forbidding. Sarah nixed that thought.
He’s just a man. As if she’d had any better experiences with men than she’d had with police officers.
Still, she managed to conjure up a smile from somewhere. She moved forward, trying to quiet the butterflies fluttering around inside her. What had happened to bring this guy to her mother’s house? And where was her mother?
“Officer, allow me to introduce myself. I’m—”
“Sarah Tucker,” he supplied. “Luke Packard.”
She blinked. “You were expecting me. Is something wrong? Okay, that was a ridiculous question. Obviously, something is wrong. What is it?”
He held up one hand as if to stop her questions. “Your mother had a fall, but she’s fine. I've spoken to her and to her doctors. She has a bump on her head and a badly sprained ankle, but other than that she’s all right. Right now one of her friends is driving her home.” He didn't smile reassuringly the way some people might have, as if speaking to a child. Sarah gave him credit for that.
“You haven’t heard anything from your sister, have you?” he asked.
Something too careful in his tone made Sarah’s breath catch. She had no clue why he was being so careful or why his tone affected her. “No. I've just arrived home after having been away for many years.”
“I’m aware of that.”
She raised one brow. “My mother told you?”
He shook his head. “Madeline told me you were coming—that was all, but this is a small town, Ms. Tucker. You've been gone a long time. People take an interest in the comings and goings of its residents. Your name may have been mentioned once or twice.”
From the way he said that, Sarah understood that once or twice was an understatement.
“In what context?” she asked, although a part of her didn't want to know.
He shrugged. “Probably nothing that bears much resemblance to reality. You know how it is. Stories grow and change over time.”
Or maybe the stories didn't change at all, Sarah thought, a sick feeling of dread growing inside. There had been plenty of things said about Sarah when she was living here. But this man hadn't been here then. He hadn't been around to witness that time.
“I told your mother I would wait here to tell you what had happened to her so that you wouldn't worry,” he said, “but I would have gotten around to introducing myself sooner or later. I’m your mother’s next-door neighbor. Madeline watches my two-year-old son when I’m at work. She really wanted to be here to greet you, but I’m afraid I’ll have to do as a welcoming party until she arrives. Welcome back to Gold Tree, Ms. Tucker.”
He was holding out his hand. Not an unusual circumstance. People shook hands all the time, but Sarah had stopped doing that years ago, ever since the day she made a conscious decision to exert total control over her so-called gift and refuse to acknowledge her clairsentience. The day she had fled Gold Tree she had promised herself a normal life. No longer would she touch someone and feel the shadows of their thoughts. She would cease to be the odd duck in every group, a woman who couldn't control her own mind and reactions to situations. It had been the hardest thing she’d ever done in her life, harder even than leaving home.
But her persistence had worked. She hadn't had a vision in years, and usually her reluctance to touch people wasn't a problem. She anticipated the situations where hand-to-hand contact or hugs might insinuate themselves and was prepared for them, tactfully sidestepping the issue. Today, however, she had been caught off guard by her own tension at returning to Gold Tree, her mother’s unexpected absence and the very presence of Lucas Packard.
Her head throbbed, and her hand felt as if it weighed ten thousand pounds. She should just bring it forward, steel her mind and give the man the briefest of handshakes. But she looked up at him then, into dark amber eyes that were studying her intently.
For half a second she wondered if he had special talents, too, if those piercing eyes saw things that others didn't see. A woman’s soul, her needs, her desires or her deepest regrets and secrets. It would be a very useful talent for a police officer. Or for a man, for that matter.
But, no. There was suspicion in those eyes, maybe even sympathy. He had heard things about her. He probably knew a fair amount of her personal history. He would know that touching people was a much bigger deal for her than for other human beings.
“My apologies, Ms. Tucker. I’m not testing you,” he said suddenly, withdrawing his hand. But his jaw was like a blade.
She felt warmth suffuse her cheeks. “I’m sorry, Officer Packard. I didn't mean to be so rude.” But she didn't offer him her hand, either. There was something unusually vital in those eyes. She had this terrible sense that if she touched him, she would feel things that went beyond the simple act of fingertips and palms sliding against each other in a casual greeting.
“Thank you for giving me the news about my mother,” she continued. “Coming home after being away for so long is disorienting. Showing up and finding the house empty would have made the situation even more difficult. I appreciate your time.”
It was a dismissal of sorts. She felt a bit guilty about that. It had been nice of him to stay and greet her. He was still in uniform. Unless he slept in the thing, he probably had been working or had just gotten off from work. He would want to be getting back to his work or his life. And he’d said he had a son, one her mother watched while he worked.
“Who’s watching your son if my mother isn't here?” she asked.
That amber gaze intensified. A frown line appeared beneath heavy dark brows. “Your sister dropped him off at the station.”
“So Cass went to the hospital with Mom?” But hadn't he asked where her sister was? What was that about?
He shook his head. “She wasn't here when I arrived. Your mother was unconscious, on the floor alone.” He studied her as if gauging her reaction, assessing her to see if she knew anything.
“Cass left Mom on the floor, injured, and didn't come back? Has anyone heard from her?” A slight sense of panic crept in. Her mother had intimated that something was wrong with Cass. What was going on?
“No one at the station has spoken to her since she brought my son in to drop him off and told the desk clerk that your mother was hurt. Someone would have called me if they’d seen her. I’d like to ask her some questions.”
Sarah felt sick at the thought, sicker still at the suggestion that Cass might have been the cause of her mother’s accident.
“Do you think Cass is to blame for my mother’s fall?”
“I think your mother would say that she wasn't. I’m not saying otherwise. I just want to know what happened and why Cass ran. And for the record, I’m not planning on dragging Cass into the station in handcuffs. My questions are purely those of a concerned neighbor and friend. No crime has been committed unless your mother says otherwise.”
This was apparently all Luke intended to say on the subject. “It was nice meeting you, Ms. Tucker,” he said. “Let me know when you hear from your sister.”
“What if I don’t hear from her?”
He blew out a breath. “She’s eighteen and she hasn't broken any laws that I know of.”
His radio buzzed at that moment and he answered the page. A low curse slipped from between his lips. He signed out and turned toward Sarah.
“You.” The word was like a bullet—cold, metallic and biting.
“I just got here.”
“Yes, well a fight just broke out at the bar. You were the topic.”
Sarah closed her eyes. “Tell me why.”
“Half the room claimed you had special powers. The other half thought that was a load of crap.” Already he was turning to leave.
He looked back over his shoulder. “Ms. Tucker?”
“Tell the load-of-crap people they’re right. I don’t do that stuff anymore.”
His eyes met hers and he studied her as if she had just claimed she could turn grass into gold. The word anymore hung in the air.
Instinctively Sarah wrapped her arms around herself in a protective gesture. So people hadn't forgotten. Already she was being judged.
“I’ll do that, Ms. Tucker. I like to keep things as quiet and peaceful as possible in Gold Tree.”
She raised her chin. “I came home to see my mother, to take care of some business and to”—she hesitated, then plunged on—“to see if I could help my sister.”
“Good. I suspect that she’s been hanging around with the wrong people, but she’s young. An older sister might be able to help head her off, Ms. Tucker.”
Luke nodded. “Sarah.”
His radio buzzed again. “I’m coming,” he said to the air, ignoring the radio, although his frown grew.
“Thanks for staying here to greet me, Officer Packard. I appreciate it. I’d come with you to clear the air, but I’d better wait here to help my mother if she’s on the way home.”
He frowned. “Do not go to The Crazy Pig when a fight is going on,” he said, his voice steely. “I don’t care how reasonable you are, you’re likely to get a chair broken over your head.”
“In your peaceful, quiet town?”
“Even here,” he said with a grimace. “I’m working on it.”
“Then let me reassure you once again. I haven’t had a vision in years. There’s nothing for anyone to fight over. Or for you to worry or frown about.”
Those amber eyes swept over her. “My apologies, Sarah. Sometimes I’m an ass.” With that he walked away.
And sometimes I’m a liar, she thought, because while it was true that she hadn't had a vision in years, there was still cause for worry. She no longer had visions, but she did have dreams just as any normal person did. And she knew for a certainty that she had seen Luke Packard—or someone very much like him—in a dream.
He had been walking away from her then, too, and she had been disappointed and scared and heartbroken. She hated that, because she was never going to allow herself to get close to a man who could make her feel those kinds of things, especially not a man with eyes that saw too much and whose commanding presence made her wary. What on earth did a dream like that even mean?
Thankfully, she didn't have time to think about that, because at that moment, a car swept around the curve.
Her mother was home. Sarah tried to ready herself for the reunion.