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The storm had increased in intensity, rain pounding against the windows as if demanding admittance. Not for the first time Blythe Wyndham regretted the isolation of the small rental house she and her daughter had moved into two months ago.
She'd never been easily spooked--not by thunderstorms or by being alone--but right now she was wondering why she hadn't taken her grandmother up on her offer to move back into the family home. The hundred-year-old farmhouse, which the Mitchells had occupied since its construction, was almost as isolated as the one in which she and Maddie were currently living. Still, it had been home for most of Blythe's childhood, and she had always felt completely safe there.
Blythe shook her head, wondering at her use of the word. There was no reason to think the house they were in wasn't safe. She couldn't ever remember consciously worrying about that before. Why the thought would cross her mind tonight--
"We haven't said my prayers."
Her daughter's reminder destroyed Blythe's momentary uneasiness. Smiling, she brushed strands of pale blond hair away from the forehead of the little girl she'd just tucked into bed.
No matter what else might have gone wrong in her life, Maddie was the one thing that had always been right. And the reason Blythe had chosen to return to the small Alabama community where she'd been raised.
"Then say them now," she prompted.
Maddie closed her eyes, putting her joined hands in front of her face, small thumbs touching her lips.
"Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I shoulddie before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."
Blythe wondered who had decided that was an appropriate prayer for a child. Of course Maddie, who said the words by rote, was probably not even cognizant of their meaning.
Thank God. "God bless Mommy and Miz Ruth and Delores." Maddie's listing of personal blessings that had grown by two since their move to Crenshaw. "And God keep Daddy safe in heaven. Amen."
"Amen," Blythe repeated softly.
Her daughter's blue eyes flew open to catch her mother studying her face. "You didn't close your eyes."
"If I did, I couldn't look at you."
"But you aren't supposed to look at me. You're supposed to bow your head and close your eyes. Everybody knows that."
As Blythe herself had always been, Maddie was an obeyer of rules. The trait made her an easy child to handle, but Blythe often wondered if it shouldn't be her role to introduce the occasional urge to rebel into her daughter's well-ordered existence.
"Sorry. I guess I forgot," Blythe said, her smile widening at the note of concern in Maddie's voice.
"You better ask forgiveness. Before you go to sleep. You hear me?"
The culture of the area was obviously making inroads, not only on the little girl's speech, but on her thinking as well. Blythe could hardly complain, since that was one of the reasons she'd brought Maddie back. That and the fact that the only family she had left in the world was here.
"I will, I promise. And you promise to sleep tight, okay?"
"Okay." Maddie turned slightly to one side, one hand sliding under the feather pillow, another item on loan from her great-grandmother's house.
The necessity of that kind of borrowing had also, like it or not, played a part in their homecoming. The little insurance money that had been left after the bills had all been paid, including those incurred by the move, wouldn't have extended to luxuries like feather pillows. With her grandmother's generosity, it would go a little further and hopefully keep them solvent until Blythe could find some kind of permanent employment.
"Just don't say that thing Miz Ruth always says," Maddie ordered without opening her eyes.
"About the bugs biting me."
Blythe could almost hear her grandmother's voice, its distinctive Southern accent repeating the same good-night wish she'd whispered to Blythe when she was a child. Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite.
"That's just a silly old saying." She bent over to press a kiss on the little girl's temple. "There are no bedbugs here or at Miz Ruth's."
Maddie had quickly picked up on the name by which most of the inhabitants of Crenshaw referred to Ruth Mitchell. Or maybe because that was how her grand-mother's housekeeper always addressed her, and the little girl spent her mornings with the two old women.
In any case, given the growing closeness between them, Blythe had decided that it didn't matter what Maddie called her great-grandmother. Ruth Mitchell would be for Maddie exactly what she had been for Blythe--friend, confidante and role model. The child couldn't have a better one.
Blythe pushed up from her perch on the edge of the bed, reaching over to turn off the bedside lamp as she did. The flash of lightning that illuminated the darkened room was followed closely by a clap of thunder.
Blythe glanced down at the little girl in the bed, but her eyes were still closed. Apparently the storm didn't bother her.
Normally, they didn't bother Blythe either. There was something about this one, however, that had kept her slightly on edge since the rain had started. If the power went out--
That's what she had intended to do, she remembered. Locate the flashlight and gather up any candles she could find. Despite having been here for a couple of months, she hadn't managed to get everything unpacked.
Of course, working at Raymond Lucky's law office half a day made it hard to get much done at the house. And she couldn't have managed either the job or the unpacking had her grandmother and Delores not been so eager to look after Maddie for her.
When she'd started with Ray, Blythe had intended to prove herself so invaluable that he'd be forced to hire her full-time. Now she knew he didn't have enough clients to warrant that expenditure. Although her greatest fear was that Ray would decide he couldn't afford her any longer, she had already started putting out feelers for more permanent--and more lucrative--positions.
Despite the obvious advantages of her move back home, that was the major drawback to living in this small, rural community. A lack of jobs that related to any of her skills.
Without the required education courses that would allow her to teach, her English degree seemed worthless in this setting. As did the five years before Maddie's birth that she'd spent as editor of one of Boston's small entertainment magazines.
Such as they are, she acknowledged.
Denying the rush of bitterness over the turn her life had taken, Blythe flipped the switch for the overhead light as she entered the kitchen, welcoming its glow. Despite her earlier uneasiness, the room seemed warm and familiar.
She rummaged through the drawers, searching for the utility candles she knew she'd brought with her. This was where she'd always kept them in the old house. She couldn't imagine where else she might have put them when she'd unpacked the container they'd been in.
Which probably indicated she hadn't. And that meant they were in one of the boxes lined up along the wall in what had been the house's front parlor.
She debated letting the candles go and simply going back upstairs to bed. That way if the power did go out, she'd never know.
Not unless Maddie has another nightmare.
The thought was enough to send her out of the kitchen and into the hall. She stopped a moment at the foot of the stairs, listening for any sounds coming from the little girl's bedroom. She could hear nothing but the steady beat of the rain against the roof.
She crossed the hall to open the door of the parlor. She kept this room shut off in an attempt to keep the utility bill down. Besides, other than using it as storage, she couldn't imagine that she would ever need the space.
By force of habit she flipped the switch, remembering only when nothing happened that she'd not yet replaced the bulbs in the overhead fixture. So far, she had only worked in here in the daytime, so that until tonight, there had been no need. And too many other things that demanded her time.
Blowing out an exasperated breath, she walked over to the boxes. She squatted before the first, trying to read the words she'd carefully printed in indelible marker as she'd packed them. Despite the occasional flare of lightning, that proved impossible. Why the hell hadn't she brought the flashlight?
Because you're operating on too little sleep and too much stress.
Putting her hand on the top of the box, she pushed herself up. Screw the candles. The flashlight would be enough.
As long as it had working batteries. Given the way the night was going...
She started across the parlor, heading back to the hall. With the lack of furniture in the room, her footsteps seemed unnaturally loud as she crossed the wooden floor. Halfway to the door she realized that wasn't all she was hearing.
She stopped, tilting her head toward the hallway. For a few seconds there was nothing, and then the noise came again.
Even over the omnipresent rain she could hear it. A low, muffled tapping.
She had heard the same sound a couple of times before, always at night, and always as she lay in that state between waking and sleeping. It had seemed too much trouble to get up and locate the source then, but she'd better figure it out tonight or, combined with her feeling of anxiety about the storm, the noise would keep her awake. If there was anything she didn't need, it was another night of interrupted sleep.
A shutter? she wondered. Or a branch brushing against the house? Except there didn't seem to be enough wind to cause either.
She hurried into the front hall, once more stopping at the foot of the staircase. Again she cocked her head to listen.
Other than the rain, the house was now silent. She took a breath of relief. In the middle of it, the tapping came again. Whatever its cause, it was definitely coming from upstairs.
The faint light spilling out into the hall to the den reminded her that she had been headed to the kitchen to retrieve the flashlight. Once she had it, she'd go upstairs and locate whatever was making the racket. When that had been taken care of, she'd check on Maddie and then get into her own bed. Maybe they could manage to make it through one night without any further disturbances.
The flashlight was lying on the counter where she'd put it when she'd started rummaging through the drawers. She picked it up and then walked over to check the dead bolt and chain lock on the back door. Both were secure.
She pushed aside the sheer curtain that covered the glass top half of the door, intending to peer out into the darkness. For an instant her reflection made it seem as if someone was out there looking in at her. Although her realization of what she was really seeing was almost instantaneous, the jolt of adrenaline that initial sensation created caused her to jerk the fabric back over the pane.