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Speeding down the highway in her convertible Beetle, the wind playing havoc with her long hair, Gillian Watson glanced at her companion.
"Well, Hank, this is just what the doctor ordered."
As usual, her comment was met with silence. Unconcerned, she laughed and pressed a little harder on the gas pedal. It was a perfect summer day. Looking content, Hank edged away from the windshield. The wind hit him full in the face and his hair went flying. Gillian gave him a warning look and he inched back.
"Oh, yummy, food. I think it's time for a pit stop," she said.
The Molly's Famous Barbeque sign was too tempting to resist, so Gillian took the exit indicated. The smell emanating from the place was divine. Hank vaulted over the passenger door, landing handsomely on the gravel.
"Show off," Gillian said.
He merely grinned in reply.
Molly's wasn't filled to capacity. The twitchy, purse-lipped hostess hurried over as soon as they walked through the door.
"You can't come in here!" the hostess wailed, waving her arms and gesturing to the door. "You'll have to leave. Read the sign."
Hank seemed to find the situation rather enjoyable and calmly took a seat. He looked at the gesticulating woman the way only Hank could, with patient dignity and absolute innocence. She gave him a wide berth and addressed Gillian, "You'll have to leave him in the car. He can't come in here."
Unconcerned, Gillian reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out a neon vest, the words "Guide Dog at Work" emblazoned on the back. She held it up to the woman's face and put the vest on Hank's accommodating form.
"Surely, you allow guide animals in here? Do I have to makea phone call?"
Suspicious, the woman looked at Gillian, obviously trying to figure out why she would need a guide dog. She glanced over her shoulder at the diners looking at her with curiosity and blushed.
"Uh, um, in that case, this way please." Walking around Hank, the nervous hostess showed them to a table in the back. "Your waitress will be with you in a moment." She sniffed audibly and stalked off.
"Do you think she smelled something bad?" Gillian asked Hank. "I don't understand what the big deal is. You kinda look like a man in a big, white, shaggy dog suit."
Hank wasn't amused. He sat down beside Gillian and rested his head in her lap. A renewed feeling of security and warmth washed over her as she stroked his majestic head.
Their waitress was a plump, pretty teenager who looked thrilled to be serving the interesting couple. She greeted them with a warm smile and, referring to the prim hostess, said,
"Don't mind her. She'd wrap the whole place in cellophane and wear a HazMat suit if she could." She giggled as if the thought gave her pleasure.
Gillian smiled. "You can reassure her Hank here is, in fact, a certified assistance animal."
"I didn't doubt you for a moment." She grinned, flipped the page on her notepad and got down to business. "My name is Pansy and I get to be your server today. Can I bring the two of you something to drink?"
The food was good, hot and came fast, just the way Gillian liked it. She left Pansy a healthy tip, wiggling her fingers playfully at the hostess on the way out and they were back on the road in no time. After about fifty miles, Hank's large lunch kicked in. He stretched his massive body across the passenger side and laid his head in Gillian's lap. She stroked his white fur and the familiar feeling of well-being wafted over her. The dog must have felt it too, for he sighed deep in his sleep. The two were meant for each other.
With Hank on hand, Gillian felt she could cope with what each new day would hold for her. She'd needed to get away from her life in the city and vowed to take the time needed to recover from what she'd endured these past few months--the fear and loss of control.
Nearing the outskirts of her destination, she pulled off the road and stopped in front of the brightly painted Welcome to New Crescent sign. A warm ocean breeze caressed her hair, the salt air invigorated her. An odd feeling of homecoming washed over her, as if the town had known she was coming and opened its arms wide in welcome, like an old friend. She embraced the feeling and gave silent thanks to her friend Marcus, who had generously offered her the use of his empty house. In that moment, Gillian knew coming here was the right decision. She threw her head back, hugged herself and laughed with pure delight. The wind carried her laughter out to sea. Joy was something she hadn't been able to feel in quite some time. It was liberating. She was ready to face her future, head on, wrestle it, if she had to. This was her destiny, come what may.
At that same moment, in the sheriff's office on the main street of town, Travis Sinclair was not nearly as euphoric. He gasped as though he'd been hit hard in the solar plexus. He hadn't felt like this since sixth grade, when Tommy McIntyre, an eighth-grader twice his size tackled him on the twenty-yard line. This time there was no Tommy. No football game. In fact, there was no one. He was alone.
Heart racing, head spinning, Travis rushed out of his office and burst into the reception area. Business as usual. Caroline was answering phones at the desk, and his deputies were calmly performing their regular duties. There was no crisis, no reason for panic. His staff looked up at him in surprise. This was not their usual unflappable sheriff.
At a good six feet, five inches of muscle, Travis Sinclair moved with a grace most men his size were unable to achieve. Somehow he never looked gangly or out of place. He owned every space he occupied and, in this instant all eyes were focused on him.
Ignoring his staff's surprised glances, Travis peered outside and assured himself that no unmentionable tragedy had befallen the residents of the sleepy seaside town. There was no plague of locusts or frogs. The sun still hung in the sky and people weren't murdering each other in the streets. He turned on his heel and strode back to his office.
Alone again, Travis's senses screamed. As sheriff, he couldn't afford to be reassured by mere appearances. He knew something was wrong and if it wasn't now, it would be soon. The feeling was potent. Birthright and experience had taught him to heed his inner voice. Stomach churning, he opened the top drawer of his desk, fished out the half-finished roll of Tums and popped one in his mouth. The chalky taste hitting the back of his throat was familiar. He'd been eating these things like candy for the past three weeks. Something was going to happen and he wasn't going to like it. It felt like fate and he braced himself for what was to come.