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The thrumming in her head started at the Essex County line and crescendoed into a pounding by the time she'd reached State Route 74. She wiped one hand, then the other on her jeans and gripped the steering wheel of her rented SUV. She was in control. She was Emily Hazard, assistant art director at an award-winning New York City advertising agency. Not Emily Hazard, the klutz-queen jinx-deluxe of Schroon Lake Central High School.
She drove through Hazardtown, the four corners community in New York's Adirondack Mountains that her ancestors had settled two centuries ago. Little remained to show the bustling logging town it had once been. A new name on the diner told her it had changed ownership again. The gas station convenience store proclaimed Souvenirs Here in a big red, white and blue roadside sign. Kitty-corner, the Community Church sat as it had for the past one hundred and fifty years with its double entry doors that had originally separated the women parishioners from the men. As a teen, Emily had made a point of entering through the men's door. The newish brick volunteer fire department building occupied the fourth corner. Ironically, the old clapboard hall had burned down when she was in college.
Paradox Lake came into view on the left. A patch of blue nestled in the greens and browns of the hardwoods and mountains surrounding it. Her heart beat double-time. As she came around the curve to Hazard Cove Road, a mama duck and her ducklings waddled onto the highway. She hit the brake pedal and sensed the pickup truck behind her before she heard the screech of its brakes. The truck touched the back bumper of the SUV and nudged her forward just short of the little family.
She pulled over onto the shoulder of the road, closed her eyes and let her chin drop to her chest. Don't let it be anyone I know. Please don't let it be anyone I know, she pleaded. Raising her head, she glanced in the side view mirror. The pickup driver had pulled over behind her. A tall, dark-haired man in a flannel shirt and jeans stepped out and approached her, stopping to check the front of his truck and the back of the SUV. From the rearview mirror, Emily couldn't see any real damage to the truck. She squinted at the mirror. Maybe a tiny dent in the bumper. Hopefully, the damage to the rental car was equally minor.
She pressed the door-lock button. Five years of living in the city had taught her to be wary of strangers, even in little Paradox. Maybe more so in Paradox, where she still knew at least ninety-five percent of the population. And this wasn't anyone she knew.
She grabbed the car rental agreement from the glove compartment and rolled her window down a notch when the man reached the door. He looked pleasant enough. Faint laugh lines bracketed his mouth. But the set of his jaw and the wariness in his light blue eyes neutralized any overt friendliness his half smile might seem to offer. Her pulse raced. This wasn't her fault. Hitting the ducks was not an option. She breathed deeply. At least she wasn't obsessing about being in Paradox anymore.
"Are you okay?" the man asked.
"Yes, I'm fine. And you?" She took in the set of his broad shoulders. He looked fine. Better than fine. She tapped the steering wheel with her pointer finger.
"I'm good." He shrugged those shoulders. "It's just a fender bender."
"Yeah. How much of my fender is bent? It's a rental."
"Hop out and take a look."
She glanced back. Another man was getting out of the pickup. "Um, maybe we should just exchange insurance information and call the sheriff's department for a report. I'll need it for the rental company." She cringed inside. Whatever officer came, chances were good that it would be someone she'd gone to school with. So much for her quietly slipping into town and keeping to herself.
The second man approached the SUV, his face shaded by the shadows of the trees. Emily tensed, now wishing that someone she knew had rearended her.
Relief flooded her as she recognized her brother Neal. She'd even forgive him for using her hated nicknamethis time.
"I wasn't expecting you for a couple of hours."
Emily rolled down the window. "I got an early start and I was driving against the commuter traffic into the city, so I made good time." She crooked her head toward the other man.
"Oh, yeah. This is Drew Stacey, the guy who's renting the campgrounds. We were dropping my truck off at the repair shop. My sister "
She glared him a warning.
"My sister Emily."
"Emily." Drew nodded. "Do you want to check out the damage now?" The corner of his mouth quirked up.
The guys moved away from the door so she could step out. Emily felt Drew's eyes on her as she walked to the back of the SUV and resisted the urge to brush herself off. For all she knew, the wrapper of the granola bar she'd eaten on the trip up was stuck to her behind.
"Oh, no," she said when she saw the dent in the bumper. If it had been her own car, it would have been minor. With a rental car, it was definitely damage. She exhaled forcibly.
"I'd better call the sheriff."
"No need," Drew said from beside her. "Look at that dent."
He looked up over the car. She followed his gaze. A county sheriff's cruiser was headed down the highway toward them.
"Ken Norton makes his rounds about this time every day," Neal explained.
Of course he did. Deputy Norton always had. No reason for her to think anything might have changed here in Paradox. At least it wasn't one of her former classmates ready to mock her propensity for disaster. The father of one of her classmates was one step removed.
The cruiser passed them, made a U-turn and pulled ahead of the SUV. The deputy got out of the car, a broad smile creased his weathered face. "Jinx Hazard," he boomed. "I heard you were back in town."
A male chuckle followed. Emily turned toward her brother and Drew. Both appeared innocently straight-faced.
"I may have said something at church," Neal admitted.
Her stomach dropped. He might as well have taken out an ad in the local paper. No, wait, announcing her visit in church probably reached more people.
"What have we got here?" Deputy Norton flipped open a pad and pulled a pen from his shirt pocket.
"I." Emily and Drew both started at once.
"You first." Norton gestured to Emily. "License and registration."
Emily handed him the rental papers she had in her hand and dug her license out of her purse.
Deputy Norton looked them over and handed them back.
"I stopped to let a duck and her ducklings cross the road and he rearended me." She folded her arms.
The deputy glanced over at the lake side of the road. The mama duck and her babies were long gone. He scribbled on his pad and pointed his pen at Drew when he'd finished. "I need to see your license and registration, too."
Drew pulled his wallet from his back pocket and handed over the documents.
"New York City," the deputy read out loud. "You up here on vacation?"
Emily caught the note of outsider suspicion in Deputy Norton's voice. Her spirits lifted. She did have the hometown advantage. Good for something.
"No, sir," Drew answered. "I work for the coalition of churches that's rented the Lakeside Campground for our summer program. I'm up here early to get the old lodge in shape for us to use."
"I heard Neal was having some renovations done. You've got your work cut out for you," the deputy said. He turned to Neal. "When's the last time the lodge was open?"
"Fifteen, maybe twenty years ago. Dad said it didn't pay to keep it open anymore with all the newer hotels around. People prefer their RVs or the house cabins."
"It was quite the place when we were kids. Your dad and my high school class had our senior prom there, you know."
The words "senior prom" made Emily cringe.
"Are you all right?" Drew asked.
"I'm fine," she answered.
"You went kind of white there for a minute like you were in pain. You're sure you're not hurt?"
She relaxed. The concern in his eyes seemed genuine. "A little shaken up," she said. But more from being back in Paradox than from the accident. "I really am all right. Thanks."
He favored her with a smile that released the rest of her pent-up tension.
"Ahem." Deputy Norton cleared his throat. "These look in order." He handed Drew back his license and registration. "So, what happened here?"
"I came around the curve. Didn't see her until it was too late," Drew said. "I couldn't brake fast enough. You know, there's usually no traffic this time of day."
The deputy checked out the front of the pickup and the back of the SUV and wrote some more. "How about you, Neal? What's your take?"
"What Drew said. We came around the curve. He wasn't doing more than forty-five, fifty tops, and there she was."
"You weren't with your sister. You didn't see any ducks?" Deputy Norton asked.
Emily's temper flared. Did he think she was lying?
"No, I didn't," Neal answered. "All I saw was the SUV in front of us."
"How about you?" the deputy asked Drew.
"No, but I was kind of busy trying to stop the truck."
Deputy Norton jotted another note in his pad and flipped it shut. "Looks like a no-faulter to me."
"No one's fault!" Emily uncrossed her arms and placed her hands on her hips. "There's a Slow Curve sign before the curve and the road's posted to watch for deer. People know you can't careen down this road. What if it had been a deer instead of my car?" She felt Drew's gaze on her and she couldn't meet it for the remorse flooding through her. She'd repaid his concern for her by dumping all the fault on him. But she couldn't have run the ducks down.
"Then, we'd have a mess. Lynn will have the report typed up by tomorrow, if you want to bother with insurance claims."
Like she had a choice. "It's a rental."
"I'll make sure Lynn gets right on that report. You can pick it up at the station. And I'll let Matthew know you're in town."
His son, Matt. Great! The class president, football team quarterback who had invited her to the senior prom on a dare from a teammate. Unknown to her until they got there. She shuddered at the memory.
"He and Becca just had a baby. My first grandson," Deputy Norton said. "I know they'll want to see you."
Becca Morgan. Former head cheerleader and debate team captain. She and Matt would want to see Emily about as much as Emily wanted to put her life in New York on hold to be here in Paradox. They should enjoy a laugh about her grand return.
"Good seeing you, Jinx. Meeting you, Drew." Deputy Norton tipped his hat and walked back to his cruiser.
Neal's and Drew's goodbyes to the deputy faded into a brief hushed conversation. Neal approached her and draped his arm over her shoulder. "You're sure you're okay?"
"Drew thought you were acting funny. But I told him no, that's just you."
Yeah, that's me, funny-acting Jinx Hazard. "Thanks, bro."
"Nothing. It was a long drive. I'm tired."
Neal opened the passenger door of her rented SUV. "Hop in. I'll drive us to the house."
She opened her mouth to argue that she was perfectly capable of driving, then relented. Why not? It had been a long drive. "Sure." She slipped into the passenger seat.
He waved his intention to Drew and took over the driver's seat. Drew pulled his truck out ahead of them and was around the next curve before Neal had even started the SUV.
Emily clutched her purse. That's why Drew had been so concerned about her. He knew he'd been going too fast. She rested her head on the back of the seat and closed her eyes to let go of her irritation with him. So much for the quiet, uneventful arrival she'd planned.