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Bad pennies always return. But what about bad people?
Lana Ross stepped up on the wooden porch of the weathered old two-story house. Her heart hammered painfully against her ribs. She'd not wanted to come to this place of bad memories. She'd had to.
A stern inner voice, the voice of hard-won peace, moved her forward, toward the door, toward the interior. A house couldn't hurt her. If she'd been alone perhaps she would have given in to the shaky knees and returned to the car. But she wasn't alone.
Lana aimed a wink at the child at her side. Sydney was her everything now and no memories were allowed to keep this nine-year-old darling from having her very first permanent home.
"Is this where you lived when you were my age?" Sydney asked, her vivid turquoise eyes alive with interest.
"Uh-huh, Tess and I grew up here." Grew up. Yanked up. Kicked out.
A tangle of a vanilla-scented vine, overgrown and climbing upon the porch and around the paint-peeled pillar at one end, gave off a powerfully sweet smell. She didn't remember the bush being there before, especially this late in the fall. But then, she'd not seen this place in thirteen years. Not since she was eighteen and free to leave without looking over her shoulder for the long arm of the law.
With the sour taste of yesterday in her throat, Lana inserted the tarnished key into the front door, an old-time lock a person could peer through, and after a few tries felt the tumbler click. Breath held, she pushed the door open on its creaky hinges, but didn't step inside. Not yet. She needed a minute to be certain the house was empty, though she had the death certificate in her bag. Mama was dead. Had been for a couple of years. As far as she knew her entire family was dead. All except Lana and Tess and precious Sydney.
She couldn't make herself go inside. Everything was still and quiet in the dim living room, but inside her head Lana heard the yells, the fights, the horrible names she'd believed and mostly earned.
She and her twin sister, Tess, were no more and no less than what their mother had made them. Now, all these years later, Lana was determined to be more for Sydney's sake.
"We'll be happy here," Sydney declared with childlike confidence.
"Yes, we will." If I have to fight the universe, you will have what you need and you will never, ever again live on the streets or inside a broken-down car.
"Can we go in now? I want to see my room. You said I could have my own room, remember? And we'd fix it up fit for a princess? Remember?"
"I remember." The child's enthusiasm stirred Lana to action. Sydney had never had a room of her own. She'd never had a house. They'd lived here and there, in tiny one-room apartments and cheap hotels, all in pursuit of Lana's impossible dream. Most important of all, Sydney would be safe here. No one would ever expect Lana to return to the one place she'd tried so hard to escape. Especially Sydney's mother.
"Who's that?" Sydney asked from her spot half in and half out of what had once been the front parlor.
Across the street a man and two children stood in a neatly mowed yard watching them. Lana's stomach dropped into her resoled cowboy boots. It couldn't be. Surely not.
The thought had no more than crossed her mind than the sandy-brown haired man with the all-American good looks lifted a hand to wave and then started toward them. Two young children, close to Sydney's age, skipped along as if on an adventure.
Lana froze, one hand on the doorknob and the other gripping Sydney's as if Davis Turner would snatch her up and carry her away.
"Hello," he said when he reached the end of the cracked sidewalk leading to the two-story.
Yep. He was Davis Turner all right. Mr. Clean-cut and Righteous. He'd been a year ahead of her in school. No one in Whisper Falls had a smile as wide, as easy and as bright as Davis.
Please God, don't let him recognize me.
"Hi," she said, not bothering to smile.
"You moving into the old Ross place?" Davis slipped his hands into the back pocket of his jeans, relaxed and easy in his skin. The man was much like the boy she remembered.
"Great." He flashed that smile again. White straight teeth, easy, flexible skin that had weathered nicely, leaving happy spokes around grayish-blue eyes and along his cheeks. "The house has been empty a long time. Houses need people to keep them young and healthy."
What an interesting thing to say. This house had never been healthy because of the people in it. "I suppose."
"We live across the street in the beige brick with the black shutters. I'm Davis Turner and these are my munch-kins, Paige and Nathan."
Lana released a tiny inner sigh of relief. Davis didn't recognize her, though sooner or later he'd discover he lived too close to the town bad girl. Would the people of Whisper Falls still remember? Did she dare hope that time had erased her teenage indiscretions from inquiring minds?
Not a chance.
"I'm ten. Well, almost," the young girl at Davis's side announced. "Nathan's barely eight. I'm the oldest. What's your name?"
"This is Sydney," Lana said, purposely providing Sydney's name instead of hers. She couldn't avoid the introduction forever, but she wanted to buy some time before Davis's bright smile withered and he turned on his heels, dragging his children in a rush to lock his doors and keep them away. "She's also nine, just barely."
Sydney hung back, aqua eyes cautious. She was too shy, too hesitant with others, something Lana hoped would disappear once they were settled. Her niece needed friends badly and Lana prayed her prior reputation in this close-knit mountain community wouldn't interfere with Sydney's happiness.
"Say hello, Sydney."
Sydney ducked her head, displaying the precise part in her super curly brown hair. "Hello."
"Are you gonna live here?" the little boy, Nathan asked.
"Just the two of you?" With the same blue-gray eyes, brown hair and square jaw of his father, Nathan was handsome. Unlike his father, he sported a dimple in one cheek.
"That's the plan," Lana answered.
"Are you married?"
Paige elbowed her brother. "Shh."
"But Paige, we have to know," Nathan protested. "She has brown hair!"
The adults exchanged glances and smiled. Davis appeared as clueless about the comment as Lana. What did her hair color have to do with anything, especially marriage?
Paige, an elfin beauty, simple and pure with pale brown freckles and ultrashort blond hair, attempted to explain. "What he means, ma'am, is that we're glad to meet you and we'd like to get better acquainted. Isn't that right, Daddy?"
Davis turned his twinkly smile on Lana again, clearly amused by his children. "Always glad to welcome new neighbors. I didn't get your name."
The jig was up. She'd prayed to get settled before her tainted past charged in with all guns blazing. Apparently, God, Who'd brought her this far, expected her to face her fears head-on.
It was now or never. Either Davis remembered or he didn't. Time to find out.
Chin up, eyes meeting his, she said, "I'm Lana Ross. You and I attended high school together."
Davis blinked rapidly, off balance. This was Lana Ross? The wild child from high school? The girl with the bad attitude and potty mouth who was rumored to do about anything with anyone?
"I thought you looked familiar." But different, too. The hard-eyed teenager who'd run off to seek fame and fortune in Nashville looked softer as an adult. Lana had always been pretty, but the softer look made her beautiful. Long, brown hair waving past her shoulders, dark mink eyebrows above clear eyes the color of the Tuscan blue tile he'd installed in a recent boutique remodel, cowboy boots over skinny jeans and an off-shoulder blouse on a petite form.
Pretty. Real pretty.
Davis was disturbed to feel a pull of interest.
Considering the welfare of his children, he wasn't even sure he wanted Lana Ross for a neighbor. He certainly didn't want to be attracted to her.
His conscience dinged, a sign the Lord was knocking on his door. Let you without sin cast the first stone.
Right. He agreed. He was no better than anyone else. But what about his kids? He was a firm believer in the old adage, "If you run with the wolves, you'll begin to howl." As a single father, he struggled to find exactly the right parenting balance, but he certainly didn't intend to have howling children.
"Daddy." Nathan tugged at his sleeve. "Can we go inside? Can we explore the haunted house?"
Lana arched an eyebrow at him. A little embarrassed, Davis said, "Sorry about that. You know how kids are. The house has been empty such a long time ."
"And it is spooky looking, Daddy," Paige said, eyes widening. "I looked in the windows before and didn't see no headless horsemen or creepy monsters, but Jaley says they only come out at night."
Jaley was Paige's best friend, a child with a vividly overactive imagination. He could, however, understand why the house had gained a reputation. Peeling paint, sagging doors and filthy dormer windows that looked out like empty eyes through faded black shutters were creepy enough, but the overgrown bushes and vines and the sheer loneliness lent an air of doom to the place. More than one shaky teenager had been caught climbing in through a window on a dare.
But Paige's comments had scared Lana's little girl. Small like Lana with kinky curly beige hair, Sydney had stiffened, growing paler with each spooky word. She clung to Lana as if she was now afraid to go inside the house.
Davis put a hand on his daughter's shoulder and squeezed, the signal he used in church to get her to stop talking. Paige hushed, shoulders slouching as her bottom lip protruded. She'd gotten the message.
"The house is not haunted," he said firmly. "I told you that. Houses get lonely. All this one needs is a family." And an enormous amount of work.
"Now it has one," Lana declared, relief in her husky voice, though she tugged Sydney closer to her jean-clad thigh and soothed the child with a pat on the back.
"She'll need some fixing up," Davis said. "You know how some teenagers are when they know a house sets empty."
He'd caught a few of them himself, usually on nights with a full moon or late in autumn just before Halloween when wind and dry, rustling leaves permeated the atmosphere.
Lana blanched, eyes widening as she swiveled her head toward the peeling paint and loose siding and then back to him. "The house has been vandalized?"
Hadn't the woman considered the possibility?
"I haven't been inside in a couple of years, since before your mother passed, but things had run down even then." He didn't say the obvious. Patricia Ross had two daughters and neither had come home to help their ailing mother. He couldn't imagine being that coldhearted against your own kin. But then, Lana and Tess Ross hadn't been the usual girls. Patricia's brother had come from Nevada to bury her.
"Vandals," Lana murmured, looking as if the weight of the house was on her shoulders. "Wonder what that will cost to repair?"
Regardless of his doubts about her, Davis's natural compassion kicked in. He could help her out. He had the expertise. He was her neighbor. He fought the urge, but kindness won out in the end. Might as well give in to it now and save wrestling with his conscience later.
"I could take a look around the place if you want and give you a rough estimate." That was all he planned. Just a quick walk-through.
"You do that sort of thing?"
The warm autumn wind lifted a lock of her hair and swirled it around until she had a spiderweb of brown matted on top of her head. She brushed at the nest, making it worse. He found the look charming and vulnerable. Davis was a sucker for vulnerable.
Tough-as-nails Lana Ross, vulnerable?
"I can," he said. "Mostly, I lay tile but I've flipped a house or two. I can do a little of everything when the situation calls for it." His face relaxed in a self-mocking grin. "In tile work, especially around here, the situation almost always calls for it. If I redo a shower, the floor beneath is inevitably rotten. Tile a floor? Bad joists."
For the first time since his arrival, Lana's pretty mouth curved. Just a little. "A true renaissance man?"
"Nowhere near that interesting, but I do know my way around a construction site."
Renaissance man. Huh. Funny. Except when he had a trowel or a hammer in hand, he was as boring as vanilla pudding. Didn't his sister remind him of that fact at least once a month? Jenny was forever trying to get him out into the world again. The dating world.
"Thanks for the offer, Davis," Lana was saying, "but I guess we need to get settled in first and then figure out where to go from there."
"Got it. Good plan." She was blowing him off, rejecting his offer. Even though disappointment made his smile droop, Davis knew he should be glad about her refusal. He'd have no obligation now, no guilty conscience for not being neighborly to a woman and her daughter living alone.
Which brought him to another subject: Where was Sydney's father?
As soon as the question settled in like good grouting mud, another followed. She'd never addressed Nathan's oddball question about being married, and she and Sydney were moving in without any sign of a man. Recalling Lana's teenage years, Davis thought the chances were very good the two were alone.