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Spring exploded outside Sarah's kitchen window as pink crab-apple blossoms unfurled their petals along a crooked branch. A thick, undulating bed of apricot and orange Parrot tulips swayed in the early-morning breeze and nuzzled against thick masses of purple Muscari. The newly mowed lawn was a lush carpet of a green so rich it did not look real. A midnight rain had gently showered the forsythia and be-jeweled an intricate spiderweb that connected two rosebushes near Sarah's back door. Rose-gold dawn rays, like the fingers of a divine hand, touched every tree, house and object in Indian Lake with the promise of a new day.
"What a beautiful morning." Sarah sighed after she breathed in the fragrance of lilacs from the open window. "This was Mother's favorite time of year." Sarah smiled wistfully. A now-familiar pang in her heart-though not as painful as her sorrow had been two months ago when her mother died of cancer-plucked at the open wounds in her psyche.
The grandfather clock in the hall chimed the hour. Sarah used to love the burled walnut clock her father had given to her mother on their fifth wedding anniversary, but now its sound was that of an echoing gong throughout the very empty house. Sarah's father had died three years ago and now her mother was dead, too.
Two years ago, Sarah had given up a very successful career as a commercial interior design architect in Indianapolis when she had learned of her mother, Ann Marie's, diagnosis. Sarah knew she'd have to return home, so she applied for and landed a job in Indian Lake at Environ-Tech Design Studios, owned and run by Charmaine Chalmers. The job had been perfect for Sarah's needs in that when Sarah had to take her mother to chemotherapy or stay at home during Ann Marie's last four months and work at her drafting table in her father's study, Charmaine had graciously given her the time off, though she continued to work on her designs from home.
Sarah's move back to Indian Lake also contributed to the eventual breakup with her high school sweetheart, James Stanwyck, an investment banker whose fast-track career was stuck in warp speed. Sarah had not realized how unfulfilling her relationship with James had been until she'd moved back to Indian Lake. They'd dated during high school, college and grad school, and once they'd both begun their careers, their romance had languished until Sarah realized she couldn't breathe. It was Sarah who put an end to them. James moved to Chicago, which was only an hour away from Indian Lake, but after sending him a thank-you note for the flowers he sent for her mother's funeral, Sarah had not communicated with him. James had been equally silent.
It didn't take long after her breakup to realize she didn't miss James. She recognized that their long-term romance had been habit more than love, or even like. She wished him well, but he seldom entered her thoughts. That was why she found it odd that she ruminated on him today.
You're just lonely, Sarah! she scolded herself, grabbing a bag of salad out of the refrigerator. She stopped midmotion as the fridge door slowly closed. Her stomach roiled as if she was hungry, but she'd just consumed a power bar and slugged back a few sips of coffee. The churning she felt was the same reaction her body always foisted upon her when she was assaulted with the truth.
Since Ann Marie died, Sarah had come to the awareness that she had a fear of being alone. All her life, Sarah had family she lived with and friends she filled her afternoons and evenings with. Even her romance with James, to a great degree, was a convenience for her. She told herself that her life was just ducky. Dandy. Because she had somebody. It didn't matter that he wasn't the right guy for her. It mattered that they were a couple. These past months, her loneliness had grown longer, darker and more infinite, like a great yawning abyss that frightened and immobilized her. Though she had many friends in town and most she'd known since high school or even longer, she now had new friendships with her coworkers. It was easy to convince herself that her life was functioning properly.
"I don't have time for all that today," she shot back at her reflection in the small, gold-framed mirror on the wall.
Sarah shoved her emotions back into her mental hiding place and put the salad in her insulated lunch sack. On the kitchen table sat her purse, cell phone, car keys and her battered leather portfolio containing the blueprints and very detailed architectural drawings for the renovation of a strip center on the north side of Indian Lake. Sarah had worked painstakingly on this project, pushing herself nearly to the point of exhaustion with late nights at her drafting table. She should have been excited about this morning's presentation to Charmaine, but she wasn't. She was worried.
Charmaine was an architect and interior designer whose perfectionist and exacting, creative eye saw shadows and light in spaces that most of her competition routinely missed. Char-maine saw potential for greatness everywhere she went. Broken houses, dilapidated commercial centers and desecrated public buildings were her favorite challenge because she believed she could fix anything. Sarah had never met anyone like Charmaine. Even when Sarah was in college at Indiana University, her design and art professors had not exhibited the kind of peerless inventiveness and vision Charmaine possessed. Sarah could only hope to be half the artist and designer that Charmaine was.
Sarah had just taken a huge gulp of her coffee when the telephone rang. She checked the caller ID and smiled.
"Hello, Mrs. Beabots. How are you this morning?" she asked cheerily of her octogenarian next-door neighbor.
"Fine. Fine, dearie, but you better corral that dog of yours."
Sarah instantly looked over to Beauregard's breakfast bowl and saw that it was still full. Her one-hundred-and-twenty-seven pound golden retriever had not touched a bite, which was very unusual. Frowning, she glanced at the back door. It was still open halfway, just as it was each morning when she let the dog out to do his business. Beauregard always let himself back in, finished off his breakfast and then plopped himself down on his green-and-blue-plaid doggie bed.
Sarah looked at the empty bed. "What about Beau?" she asked, going to the door and opening it all the way.
"I'm looking at him from my bedroom window," Mrs. Beabots continued, "and he's digging a hole at your back fence. From the looks of it, pumpkin, he'll hit Shanghai in less than an hour."
"He's doing what?" Sarah went to the back porch, leaned over the railing and nearly dropped the cordless phone. "I'll call you back, Mrs. Beabots. And thanks."
"Anytime, pumpkin," she said and hung up.
Sarah nearly flew down the back porch steps and across the lawn. "Beauregard Jensen! What are you doing?"
Clumps of mud and dirt sailed into the air and dappled Beauregard's copper and golden fur in a crazy quilt pattern.
Sarah raced up to the golden retriever, still yelling his name, but he paid no attention. If anything, he dug harder and faster.
A dollop of mud went slinging through Beau-regard's hind legs and smacked Sarah in the forehead.
"Beau! Stop it, this instant!" she shouted, wiping the mud off her face.
Beauregard kept digging. He splattered Sarah's freshly dry-cleaned camel-and-black silk suit. Sarah dodged the mud rain and went around to the left of the dog and tried to grab his collar and pull him out of the deep hole he'd dug. Though she tried to steady herself in her tan pumps, she slipped on the grass, which she'd been far too prideful about, and fell rump-side down. She knew she should change out of her business suit in order to avoid serious damage to her clothes, but she'd be late for work if she didn't get Beau out of the hole and back into the house.
"Of all the days in my entire career, did you have to choose today to act like a dog?"
Beauregard paid no attention to her and kept flinging dirt.
"What are you doing? And why are you doing this?" she asked, frustration spiking the edges of her words. Another clump of dirt hit her on the cheek.
"That's it!" Sarah pulled with all her might and hoisted Beauregard out of the hole and away from the fence.
Beau snarled at Sarah.
She snarled back.
Beau glanced back at the hole and Sarah knew he was thinking about defying her, just like a misbehaving child. "Don't even think about it, Beauregard Jensen. Just look at you! You've made a terrible mess of yourself. It will take me hours to clean you up and I have to be at work."
Dragging Beau behind her, which was a serious feat of strength and adrenaline, Sarah trudged toward the driveway. "You have to have a bath and there's no time left. It's off to the groomers for you!" Sarah pulled on Beau's collar again, but the dog had relented to his fate and now walked, head forlornly hung, next to his master and supposed superior creature.
Sarah ordered Beauregard to sit on the driveway next to her Envoy as she went to the garage, got an old plastic tarp and draped it across the passenger's seat. She stood aside as Beauregard jumped into the SUV.
"The tarp will hopefully keep my car clean, but believe me, it's going to take professional fumigation to get your dirty dog smell out of here!" Sarah slammed the car door.
She went back to the kitchen, grabbed her purse, portfolio and lunch and locked the house.
As she walked around the flagstone path to the front yard, she saw Mrs. Beabots standing on the front sidewalk, hand up to her forehead to shade her eyes from the brilliant morning sun. "Showed him whose boss, din't cha?" Mrs. Beabots asked.
Sarah had lived on Maple Avenue all her life, and for as long as she could remember, Mrs. Beabots had not only lived next door, but she had also felt that whatever was happening in the Jensen household was her prerogative to know. Mrs. Beabots was not a gossip, and blessedly, she didn't share the information. She simply believed she could not help the ones she loved if she didn't know their business.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Beabots never understood that Sarah despised being late to work- or late to anything, for that matter. Mrs. Beabots loved to talk. Talking helped whittle away the hours of her very lonely life.
"I have to get Beau down to Puppies and Paws and then I have to be at work "
"I know, dearie. I know. You gotta run."
"I do," Sarah said, sliding into the car.
"When you get home tonight, I can help you fill that hole back up. Perfect place for a start of my peonies," Mrs. Beabots offered.
"I just don't know what possessed him to dig like that," Sarah said. "Beau has never been a digger."
Mrs. Beabots turned her thin face toward Sarah's backyard. "Could have been the fact that last night when Beau came home with that dead squirrel, you tossed it over the fence into the old Samuels' yard."
Sarah shuddered as she remembered when she'd let Beau out just before her bedtime. She had been preoccupied with her presentation and last-minute adjustments to her drawings, and hadn't realized Beau was taking an abnormal amount of time outside. As always, she'd left the kitchen door half-open, and when he came in and pushed it open all the way with his snout, Sarah had turned around in time to see a dead squirrel, stiff with rigor mortis, clamped between Beau's jaws. Off her chair in a shot, she whisked a kitchen towel off the countertop, threw it over Beauregard's face and wrenched the squirrel from the dog. She shrouded the dead animal in the towel and immediately went out to the backyard. It was a new moon, black-as-pitch night, but Sarah knew exactly how many paces it was to the north side of her yard, where a six-foot high, white-wood fence separated her property from the Samuels' estate. With one mighty swing of her right arm, she heaved the dead squirrel over the fence.
Turning around, she found Beau standing directly behind her. If she hadn't heard his loud panting first, she would have fallen over him.
"Don't ever do that again, Beauregard Jensen," she warned with a wag of her finger and a steep arch to her eyebrow. Not that he could see her expression in the dark.
Sarah grabbed his collar and yanked him toward the house. She remembered now that on the way back, Beauregard had paused and looked back at the fence. It wasn't until she shouted his name and gave his collar another tug that he followed her obediently.
Sarah knew now that Beauregard had started plotting his strategy for retrieval at that very moment. She wondered if he'd thought about it all night.
Sarah looked back at Mrs. Beabots, who was patiently holding her arms at her sides, the skirt of her black-and-white-polka-dot dress fluttering around her legs. "That house has been vacant for two years. I didn't think anyone would mind," Sarah said glumly.
"You shoulda buried the squirrel out of Beau's sight."
"Why?" Sara asked.
"Because, pumpkin. That critter was his prize.
Dog's always gonna go for his prize. He's a retriever." Mrs. Beabots smiled her thin smile and nodded.
Sarah watched after the little bird of a woman who'd always been not only observant but wise, and somehow invariably managed to make certain she had the last word.
Luke Bosworth was lost in thought as he drove his children-Annie, his eight-year-old, freckle-faced, redheaded daughter, and his six-year-old son, Timmy, with the bright blue eyes-to school.
"Can we go all the way down Maple Avenue, Dad?" Annie asked.
Annie looked out the window and gazed at the majestic, hundred-year-old sugar maples for which the street was named. "I love it. It's so beautiful this time of year, with all the tulips blossoming. My favorites are the pink ones."
Timmy gave her a dismissive wave of his hand. "Aw, Annie. All the tulips on Maple Avenue are pink."
"It's okay," Timmy said, sitting up straighter as they turned off Main Street and onto Maple. "I like all the big houses. I bet the people who live here are really rich."
Luke heard his children's chatter as if their words were being spoken under water. They were playing one of their favorite games, where they picked out the "happiest" house.
He barely glanced at the tall "Painted Ladies," the historic Victorian houses painted in pinks, purples, yellows and bright greens. These houses were painted in bright colors during the era when heavy smoke billowed out of the factories in Chicago and steel mills in Gary. The prevailing winds coated the huge homes in Indian Lake with soot, and the bright colors became subtle from grime and pollution.
He frowned and rubbed his aching forehead as they drove past a three-story Italian stucco house with French doors and huge windows.
"That's my favorite," Annie said, pointing at the windows. "Do you like it, Dad?
Luke wasn't exactly paying attention, so he grumbled, "Hmm." He continued diving deeper into the sea of thoughts about his wife, Jenny.
It had been two years, three months and six days since Jenny died, and Luke felt as if he'd died with her.
The autumn when he and Jenny had first discovered Indian Lake on a weekend trip from their home near Chicago, Jenny had walked up and down Maple Avenue pretending she was house shopping. She chose over half a dozen houses that she liked. She would have loved to raise their children in one of these fine, old homes.
But that was then, Luke thought as he glanced back at the Italian stucco house. Whoever these people are, they're better off than I am.