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"Your daughter is locked up in my jail again." Sheriff Erin Walker hated these calls with a passion. In a town of under two hundred with the people scattered spaciously around the forested base of Midnight Ridge, crime was rare. This was the third time this week she'd hauled Sienna Sinclair in and put her teenaged ass behind bars.
"Again? What has she done this time?" Owen Sinclair sounded tired, beaten down by the reality of raising a troubled kid alone.
She sighed. The answer didn't really matter. The girl was just as messed up as her father. The difference was, Sienna was striking out at a community that had failed to save her mother. She couldn't blame Sienna, not one bit. Every second of the two years since Cindy Sinclair had gone missing and then been presumed dead had been hell for them all.
"We have to do something about her, Owen. This can't go on."
"I know, Erin. I know."
She'd grown up with Cindy and Owen. She wasn't just the local sheriff. She was also one of Owen's closest friends, Sienna's godmother, and worried sick about both of them. Hearing the defeat in Owen's voice broke her heart. "Come on down to the station. We'll talk."
"I'll be there in twenty or so. I need to get Henry to watch the store."
"We'll be here."
He answered with a grunt that might have been, "Okay," before the phone clicked dead.
Erin dropped the department phone back into its cradle. It tore at her how little she could do to help them. But this time she was going to be blunt and lay it out. If she and Owen couldn't get through to Sienna, then ... well, they'd have to get serious.
The teenager had flattened James Marshal's tractortires, burned a few corn stalk pyres, stolen from her own father's store, taken joyrides in Miss Carolyn's old Caddy and tried to hotwire Erin's Jeep ... but this time was worse. What the girl'd done this time wasn't just a prank. It was ... disturbing.
Smoothing back her wind-tangled hair, she retied it into her usual ponytail. She reached halfway to her desk drawer for the lipstick she kept there but halted. No, she wasn't going to spruce up. No need. It was just Owen and he didn't even know women existed. His whole heart had died when Cindy disappeared. Shame too. He'd always had Erin's heart firmly in his pocket if he ever cared to look.
Never mind that.
She left her tiny office to check the front desk. "Everything good here, Irma?"
"Yes, ma'am. It's all good, all quiet." A sweet little mouse of a secretary, Irma Parson pushed her glasses up and fussed with a vague attempt to hide her fresh pink nail polish. Not that the girl would get in trouble for it. No, it was more likely Irma was just being shy about the new, more feminine color on her normally bare nails.
Did Irma have a date? If so, it was about time. "Go ahead home, Irma. I can handle Sienna myself."
With a single nervous glance at the clock, Irma snatched her purse and nearly darted for the door. "Thanks, Sheriff Walker."
The door slammed shut and left the quiet moving through the room like a dangerous shadow holding the unknown. It was silent enough to raise the hair on the back of her neck.
Had Sienna ever been that quiet in her whole life? Not that Erin had ever seen. Rushing back to the lock up, she turned the corner and found the girl standing in the center of her cell. One hand rose and held out like a mime, pressing against a wall ... or perhaps something soft.
"Momma?" Sienna's whispered voice carried on a tremble of air. Hesitant, yet flushed with the deepest of emotions. "Oh, Momma, I've missed you so much."
Pain closed Erin's throat. Dear God, please don't let the girl go on like this. It was too terrible, too cruel, far too much to ask her to bear. "Sienna, are you all right?"
Sienna didn't look her way. Her hand stayed up, but her fingers closed over like she was holding someone's hand. "You see her, don't you? Momma's come back."
Shit. Erin unlocked the cell and moved around the girl to face her. The look of joy on Sienna's face was beautiful and terrible. "I don't see anyone, Sienna. Just you and me."
"But she's right here. Reach out and you can touch her too."
After seeing the crazy graffiti Sienna had painted on the water tower, she'd wondered if maybe the girl had gotten a hold of some drugs. Now, drugs seemed like the better of two awful options. "She's not here, honey. She's gone."
"She's not! She's right in front of me. Momma's here." Tears welled up in the girl's wide eyes. Her body began shaking. Her hand finally lost its surreal handholding shape and slowly fell to her side.
Erin caught her even as the girl's knees buckled. "Easy, honey." Curled into her arms, Sienna's sobs were soft and wretched. Erin moved them to the bench and cradled her, holding Sienna through the emotional storm. With fingers to Sienna's wrist, Erin checked her pulse. She was pretty sure this was just wild emotions, but if there were drugs involved, better safe than sorry.
Her pulse was a little bit fast, but not dramatically so considering the rush of tears. Gradually the shaking subsided and Sienna pulled back, wiping at her face with her overlong sleeve.
"Sienna, I'm worried about you."
Right. "I'm worried enough right now that I'm considering dragging you down to Black Mountain Medical to have you drug tested."
"What?" Sienna laughed, but the sound grated on the edge of hysterical. "I don't do drugs. You can't even get drugs here in Midnight Ridge."
"I just saw you talking to thin air--"
"No, you didn't. I was talking to my mom."
Owen's shadow cut across them. "Your mother is gone, Sienna."
"Mom's not gone. She's dead, but not gone." Sienna shot to her feet and stomped across to face her father through the bars. "She's dead, but she was here. I talked to her ghost. She talked back." Sienna's voice rose on every word.
Hands fisted around the bars, tears streaming down her cheeks, Sienna shouted. "She's dead. Mom's dead. She didn't leave us. She's dead and someone here in Midnight Ridge killed her!"
Owen's hands closed over hers. This newest drama was too much. His wife gone, his daughter tearing herself apart, it was all just too damn much. He couldn't take any more. "Sienna Sinclair, shut your mouth, now." He choked on the last few growled words.
Then the door to the cell was open and he dragged Sienna into his arms.
His baby. She was just as broken as he was. How could he blame her for wanting her mother so badly as to dream up her ghost? He couldn't. He wouldn't. He just held her, held her in a hold she normally would have complained about, but now she just held him back. He closed his eyes and wished for just a moment that it would all go away, that somehow they could turn time back to before Cindy had gone.
Opening his eyes, his gaze met Erin's moss-colored eyes. Rather than the hard and annoyed look she'd worn lately, now she looked soft and sad. He could well imagine the pitiful sight he and Sierra presented to her.
Without loosening his grip much, he turned Sierra toward the door. "Come on, baby. Let's get you home."
"I know. Let me get her settled first. Please." Of course Erin would insist on their talk, even more so after Sienna's outburst.
"At Barry's, then. I'll wait for you there."
He nodded. Barry's Bar was across the road from his little grocery store. He'd be able to watch his loft from a barstool. Never mind that Erin would expect him to need a drink. Had he become that predictable? Yeah, he probably had.
He guided Sienna out the door and to his truck. Even without Erin broaching the subject, he couldn't deny that this was something he'd have to deal with eventually. Sooner or later he and Sienna would have to talk about what she'd said and how hurtful it was to him and to herself.
Yes, he had to admit that Cindy was almost certainly dead. Even that first week after her disappearance, he'd somehow known. She'd never have left him or Sienna, not willingly. There'd been people who'd thought and said she'd just left their small town behind, lit out for someplace brighter, bigger, maybe even been caught in the headlights of a rich man on his way through the Blue Ridge Mountains. But he knew better. Cindy had loved Midnight Ridge, and she'd loved her family and life here too. She'd never have just left them. No way.
No, he'd always felt her death deep down. She'd been killed or taken away that very night. He and Erin had rounded up one hell of a search by the next day, but even then it would have been too late.
Sienna broke into his thoughts as he parked behind their store. "Dad?"
"I did see her. I know you don't believe me. You're probably planning to talk to me long and hard about telling the truth and accepting that we may never know what happened to Mom. I know ... You've said it before. But I saw her. I know the truth."
He started to say all the things she expected, but the words wouldn't come. Shoving his door open he just waved her toward the apartment stairs. "Come on."
She was beside him in just a couple of steps. "I won't talk about it if you don't want me to, but it was wonderful. I wish she'd come to you, too."
While she ran past him and up the stairs, he couldn't hold back a sigh. He thought Me too, but on a short breath he said, "I don't." His feet locked up on the first step. If he knew Cindy could come to him as a ghost, would he want to see her? Yes. No ... maybe.
"Go see Aunt Erin. I'm gonna write in my journal and then go to bed. You can yell at me tomorrow. In fact, I'll watch the store. You can ground me and yell all day if you want." Sienna's sudden good humor wasn't what he expected. The change was as unnerving as the outburst.
His feet grew heavier and he just couldn't bear to face any more of the emotional rollercoaster just then. "Go, I'll be up in a bit." She'd be fine. Probably better off than if she had to deal with his current mood.
Back down the three steps he'd just climbed, he slipped into the back of the store. He might as well make sure Henry was able to handle closing.
Henry was behind the counter, leaning heavily against the frame. "I just finished ringing out the receipts. Didn't take much."
"Nope, not much." There'd only been a couple locals come by to pick up a few necessities. But that was how most days went here.
The drawer slid shut with a jingle. "All done. Can you cover me the next few days? I've got another glass show I'm heading out to. If the show goes well, I might be gone all week."
"Sure. No problem. Sienna can cover evenings."
Henry laughed. "Well, her misfortune to my benefit. I might be back as early as Wednesday or Thursday."
"Good luck." Henry's glass was well known in the area but not many others had shown interest in the man's amazing skill. "You keep going to shows, I may have to buy out your half of the store so you can blow glass full time."
Limping his way out the door, Henry just waved and laughed.
Owen dimmed the lights and locked up. Not much else to do. Nothing else to keep him from Barry's and the long lecture Erin would have waiting.