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Barrett, Michigan, 2006
The wailing sirens and shouting voices receded to a faint hum as the light flashed before Ariel's eyes. Glowing through a thin veil of mist, bright but not blinding, it granted her such clarity that she could see what others could not.
The little girl. Her big, dark eyes wide in her pale face, her black hair hanging in limp curls around her cheeks and over her shoulders. In that pale yellow dress she'd favored, she was dressed for school. But she wasn't there, safe in Ariel's second-grade classroom. Not now. She hovered before the ramshackle house, back from the curb where police cars and an ambulance blocked the street.
Ariel had left her Jeep farther down the road and walked to the house, which sat on the edge of commercial property, only businesses and warehouses surrounding it and a handful of other rundown rental houses. No trees. No grass. No yard in which a child could play. Ariel had ducked under the crime scene tape roping off the property. She didn't need to rush around like all the other people, the ones trying to figure out what had happened or how to help. Before she'd even arrived, she'd known what had happened and that it was too late for help.
As she blinked back tears, the mist thickened and the light faded, dimly shining on just the little girl, who, too, was fading and dissolving into the mist. Ariel reached out a hand, trying to hold on to her, trying to keep her from leaving. Her voice thick with emotion, she whispered the child's name, "Haylee..."
The little girl whispered back, her mouth moving with words Ariel couldn't hear. What did she want to tell her? Goodbye?
The tears fell now,sliding down Ariel's cheeks, blurring Haylee from her vision. "I'm not ready to let you go...."
She was too young to be alone. Only eight. And she'd get no older now.
Ariel's heart ached so much she trembled with the pain. As she shook, the charm dangling from the bracelet on her wrist swayed back and forth. Her hand was still extended, reaching for Haylee as the child faded away. Ariel's fingers clutched at the mist, slipping through the gossamer wisps until she touched something solid. Something strong and warm.
Arms closed around her. A hand pressed her face against a hard shoulder. On a gasping breath, she drew in the rich scent of leather and man. Her man.
Even with her eyes closed, she saw David as vividly as if she were staring up at him. Although she wasn't petite at five ten, David towered above her and everyone else. With his golden hair and dark eyes, he was a throwback to the conquering Vikings of centuries ago, not so much in appearance as attitude. Or perhaps a black knight, for he was dressed all in black today--black leather jacket, black silk shirt and black pants.
His deep voice rumbled as he told her, "You shouldn't be here. I'm going to take you home."
"H-how did you know?" she asked. How did he always know where she was and when she needed him? She hadn't called him. She should have. She realized that as she glanced up at his face, his square jaw taut and hard, his dark eyes guarded. But she'd called Ty McIntyre instead--for his badge, not his support.
"Did Ty call you?" Of course the police officer would have called David. They'd been best friends since they were little kids--or so they'd told her. She hadn't known either man that long, just long enough to fall for David.
"Ty's here?" David asked. "Oh, my God, is he the injured officer?"
Ariel blinked the last of the mist away. As it vanished, the faint hum she heard morphed into a cacophony of sirens and shouts. For the first time since arriving on the scene, she became aware of the reporters shouting out questions from the curb as officers held them back. "Mr. Koster, why are you here? What's your involvement?"
Her. If Ty hadn't called David, the live coverage of the scene must have been how he'd known where she was. She didn't ask him, though, because he'd started toward the house. Unlike the media, the officers never attempted to stop him. Everyone knew the richest man in Barrett, Michigan.
They didn't know her. Until David's appearance, neither the police nor the reporters had really noticed her.
"Who is that with you?" a reporter called out now as Ariel followed David, his shadow falling across her.
"Who's the redhead?" another one shouted. David ignored them, intent on the house, its door gaping open on broken hinges.
"Ty's hurt?" she asked him, her voice cracking. She never would have called him had she known it would put him in danger.
"I don't know. I have to find him," David said, then glanced down at her. "But I don't want you to come inside the house."
His dark eyes soft with concern, he obviously feared what she might see. If he only knew... But that was perhaps the only thing he didn't know about her--what she saw. She couldn't tell him because she couldn't explain what she didn't understand herself.
"I'll be all right," she promised him. It was an empty promise because she had no way of knowing if she spoke the truth. No way of knowing what might happen next. That gift had been her mother's, not hers.
He must have assumed she meant she'd be okay by herself outside, for he withdrew his arm and started toward the gaping door. But before he could step inside, two men filed out wearing medical examiner's jackets and carrying a small black body bag on a gurney between them.
Haylee's body, battered and broken, lay inside that bag. But not her spirit. Her spirit hovered yet on the mist, which thickened even as the light brightened. Everything receded again, the shouts of the reporters, the flashes of their cameras. She saw nothing but Haylee again.
"Ariel." David called her name as his arm came around her shoulders, lending his strength and support with his closeness.
"Where's Ty?" she asked, but a glance up answered her question. The officer stood near David, his dark hair rumpled, his face swollen and blood seeping through his dark T-shirt.
"What the hell happened?" David asked his friend. Ty blew out a ragged breath. "Son of a bitch killed his daughter, then resisted arrest."
"Wh-where is he?" Ariel stammered.
He nodded toward the house. "Still inside."
"He's dead?" David asked.
Another nod. Ariel hadn't seen Haylee's father. But then, since he'd abused his own child, he'd probably lost his soul long ago. She gestured toward Ty's T-shirt, where the blood seeped. "You're hurt. You need help."
With just a look toward the curb, David summoned paramedics, who rushed up to help his friend. "Take him to Mercy," he directed them. "Dr.
Meadows will be waiting." His cell phone was out, pressed to his ear, before Ty could be helped toward the ambulance.
He refused the gurney, walking by himself instead. As he moved forward, unbeknownst to him, he stepped into the mist and passed through the fading image of Haylee. Ariel gasped as he turned back, his blue gaze meeting hers for just a moment before he swayed on his feet.
"He'll be all right," David said, his voice even deeper with conviction. "He's strong."
Despite his claim, David led her back toward the ambulance into which Ty was being helped. All color had drained from the officer's face, leaving it as stark and pale as Haylee's. He whispered to Ariel, too, but his words she heard. "I'm sorry."
She shook her head, the regret all hers. She hadn't sent him here to help Haylee. She'd known it was already too late for that when the mist had swirled into the classroom where she taught second grade and the student she'd thought absent had appeared. Like so many othersAriel had seen over the years--as a ghost.
The woman reached trembling fingers toward the television, brushing them over the image on the screen. Although the glass was cold beneath her skin, warmth spread through her. "Ariel..."
Not much of the child she'd been was left in the beautiful woman Ariel had become. Her hair was long now and a richer, more vibrant red that stood out like blood against the dead lawn of the property surrounded by crime-scene tape. Her face had thinned, her eyes, large and haunted, overpowering the delicate features of her nose and mouth.
Haunted. That was what this child was. The camera caught her reaching out toward empty space, but Myra knew what her daughter saw. The spirits had always been drawn to Ariel, even when she'd been a child. Myra wasn't sure if Ariel had seen them then, but she obviously saw them now.
Then Myra glimpsed the charm dangling from Ariel's thin wrist. She slid her fingertips across its image on the screen. Even though she touched glass, not the charm, she felt the heat of the little pewter sun, power radiating from it. If Ariel only knew...
Myra should have told her children everything that night so long ago when they'd been taken from her. She should have prepared them better to deal with their gifts and the curse. But they'd been so young.
Tears burned her eyes, blinding her toAriel's face. Giving them up had been the hardest thing she'd ever done, but they'd deserved better than her. They had deserved to live as normal lives as they could with the gifts they'd inherited. They'd deserved to be safe.
Pain pounded at her temples as pictures rolled through Myra's mind, visions of her children. They weren't safe. Not anymore. Maybe she'd given them up for nothing. She hadn't hidden them from danger; she'd made them more vulnerable to it.
Weak in the knees, Myra settled back onto the hard wooden chair next to the round table covered with a brightly patterned cloth like the ones covering the walls that transformed her little trailer from drab to exotic. In the middle of the table a crystal ball glittered, reflecting the images from the television.