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No, no, no.
Lightning flashed, a dazzling display that crackled the air with energy, made the hair on Sadie Nixon's arms stand up. Ten seconds later, thunder boomed, vibrating through her moving Jeep.
She leaned forward to look through the windshield at the rapidly darkening sky. Clouds rolled, merged together. A strong gust of wind buffeted the Jeep, had her fighting to keep it on the road. She pressed down on the gas, strangled the steering wheel. Please, don't do this to her. Not this time.
She passed the road leading to Knapp's Creek. Glanced out the driver's-side window. She wasn't going to make it. She could turn around, she thought frantically. She was barely in Shady Grove, had just passed the city limits. She'd head west, maybe spend the night in Pittsburgh then come back tomorrow.
It was a good planand for someone who preferred to let life happen to her instead of bending it to suit each situation, that was saying something.
Yep, it was a solid plan. And it probably would have worked if she hadn't run into Jessica Gardner at Miranda's Market. Jessica wasn't a gossip, but what were the chances she wouldn't tell anyone she'd seen Sadie a full day before she'd returned to her hometown?
Probably somewhere between zero and in Sadie's dreams.
She didn't have a choice. She had to keep going. Maybe, if luck was with her, the wind at her back and all that jazz, she would make it to her destination before it rained. Or, better yet, the clouds could pass right over Shady Grove, just keep going. Wait to unleash their fury on some other unsuspecting town.
Yes, that was it, think positively. She'd use the power of her mind and her good intentions to keep the storm at bay.
She could have sworn she heard the Fates laugh in delightseconds before the sky opened and a torrential rain came down so hard, so fast, the drops bounced off the hood, sounded like rocks hitting the roof.
Scowling, she continued down Case Boulevard, her fingers tapping the steering wheel to the beat of Mumford and Sons' "I Will Wait." The dark seemed to swallow the beams of her headlights before they could do more than reflect the next twenty feet or so. Her windshield wipers put up a valiant, yet pretty much useless battle against the downpour as she sped along the familiar road.
It was coincidence, of course. One of those freakishly weird anomalies that had a thunderstorm appearing as she happened to return to town for the first time in three years.
Just as it was coincidence, and only coincidence, that had some natural disaster occurring every time she returned home.
Every. Single. Time.
Rainstorms. Floods. Hail. A tornado. And that memorable freak spring blizzard when she'd driven in from Dallas back when she'd been twenty-two.
Maybe the Fates could hit the town with hordes of locusts or an earthquake next time. Just to mix it up a bit. All these rainstorms were getting predictable.
And she hated being called Cyclone Sadie.
Oh, and of her grandmother genuflecting every time Sadie came to visit.
Jeez, an ancient tree limb happens to fall onto her gram's beloved Cadillac at the exact same moment Sadie knocks on the front door for an impromptu visit and suddenly Sadie's the spawn of Satan.
Bringing evil omens.
Which was ridiculous. There were no such things as omensevil or otherwise. Sure, a person could follow the signs, but Sadie preferred to trust in her own instincts. So when those instincts had told her to get the heck out of Dodgeor in her case, New Orleansshe'd packed up her worldly belongings and skedaddled.
Not slowing, she turned the defrost up to high and leaned forward, squinting to make out the white center line dissecting the road. If only she could remember to check the weather forecast before any actual skedaddling took place, she'd be golden.
As for her current streak of bad luck Well, it had to end sometime. Her fortunes would turn around soon. They always did. Highs and lows and all that. Such was life.
It was like being on an endless roller-coaster ride. The slow, jerky ascents, quick, stomach-tumbling drops and body-shaking twists and turns made getting out of bed each day worthwhile. Interesting. Exciting.
She wouldn't want it any other way.
The flat, straight, in-the-middle times were so calm. So boring.
She might be at rock bottom, but she'd had fun on the way down. And now, there was nowhere else to go but up.
Telling herself she felt better about the whole crappy situation that was her current life, Sadie reached for the coffee she'd picked up at Miranda's Market. She took her eyes off the road for a split secondbarely a fraction of a split second, reallybut when she glanced up, the cup to her mouth, a huge dog stood in the middle of the street.
Her heart leaped to her throat. Time seemed to slow as she stomped on the brakes and yanked the wheel hard to the left. The Jeep fishtailed, the force causing the back end to shake violently before hitting a patch of water and skidding off the road. The vehicle spun once twice before the rear driver side slammed into what felt like a brick wall, jerking Sadie hard to the side. Her seat belt cut into her shoulder. Her head snapped sideways, hitting the side window with a sharp thud.
Her vision blurred, then went black .
She couldn't have been out more than a minute because when she came to, the same Rihanna song that had started when she'd been spin, spin, spinning, was still playing on the radio.
Sadie peeled her eyelids open, breathed deeply then winced at the pain on the side of her head. Gently probing the area with her fingertips, she brushed against a rising bump. Ouch.
She glared upwardat the approximate spot where she was sure the Fates were gloating down at her.
She slowly stretched then squirmed, flexed her toes in her sandals, curled and straightened her fingers. Other than the bump on her head and what was sure to be a lovely mark on her chest from the seat belt, nothing was broken.
The song had reached her favorite part, but at the moment, the notes jarred her teeth, ran over her already ragged nerves. She shut the radio off, her hands and breathing both unsteady. Leaning to the left, she stared out the driver's-side window. She could see now that she hadn't hit a brick wall, but a four-foot-wide brick pillar, one of two holding the large, cheery sign towering over her.
She couldn't make it out clearly, not with the rain and her windows fogging up and all, but she already knew it showed a deliriously happy family of four enjoying a picnic alongside the river. In the background, boats dotted the water, the sky was clear, the sun shining brightly. An ornate steel bridge led to the town of Shady Grove.
On a red plaid blanket spread over the grassy bank, the mothera testament to the eighties with her acid-washed shorts and big hairread to her cherubic daughter. Off to the side, father and son tossed a baseball. And across that incredibly blue sky, written as if the words had been spun out of fluffy white clouds, was a simple salutation.
Welcome to Shady Grovewhere everyone feels at home!
It was the same sign that had greeted her over twenty years ago when she and her mother had moved here. Her first glimpse of what life was going to be like in this small, western-Pennsylvanian town nestled amidst the rolling hills. Traditional. Idyllic.
A far cry from how they'd lived when Sadie's father had been alive, when each day brought with it a new adventurebe it a trip to the zoo or a spontaneous move to another state. Life with Victor Nixon had been unpredictable, unstructured and always, always exciting.
She missed him. After all these years, she still missed him so much.
Sighing, she shut her eyes and willed the headache pressing against her temples to subside. What the heck had sent that dog out on a night like this anyway?
Her eyes flew open. Crap. The dog.
Unbuckling her seat belt with one hand, she turned off the Jeep with the other, then grabbed the small flashlight from the glove box. She bolted out into the rain. Her feet slid out from under her and she went down on her knees.
She glanced at the heavensand almost drowned from the deluge. She lowered her head, but rain still stung her face, plastered her hair to her cheeks, the back of her neck.
Didn't whoever was in charge upstairs have any idea how hard it was to get mud out of cotton? You'd think they could cut her some slack, at least until she found the dog.
A bolt of lightning lit the sky. But it didn't strike her dead.
She'd take that as a sign she could safely continue on her way.
Staying in the beams of her headlights, she carefully made her way to the side of the road. No dog. Of course not. That would be way too easy.
Thunder rumbled, echoed across the valley.
She rolled her eyes and turned on the flashlight. Yeah, yeah. She got it. She was a puny mortal, helpless against the whims of fate and the wants of a higher authority. Whoop-de-freaking-do.
As if she wanted to be an all-powerful entity. Please. There was way too much responsibility involved.
When she screwed upas she was wont to doshe only had herself to worry about.
At the other side of the road, Sadie peered into the woods but couldn't make out much, other than trees, trees and more trees. She tucked the flashlight between her arm and side and clapped her hands. "Here, doggie."
From the corner of her eyes, she caught movement to her right. She stilled. There it was again. A flash of white, the glint of two eyes.
"Hi." She smiled and stepped forward, kept the light aimed at the ground. The dog startled and slunk off into the shadows. "I'm not going to hurt you. That's it," she continued when the dog approached again. She extended her free hand. "Come on, gorgeous. I don't bite. Unless you bite me first, then all bets are off."
The dog cocked hisor herlarge head, considered Sadie's hand for a moment then delicately sniffed her fingers.
She took the opportunity to check under the hoodso to speak.
"You're a handsome fella, aren't you?"
He inclined his head as if to agree.
Then again, most males who were good-looking knew it, so why should a dog be any different? He was mostly black with a white chest and face, and a black left ear and patch around his right eye. Definitely a mixed breed, but she could see some boxer in his square face, the shape of his pointy ears.
Sadie rubbed his head gently. He didn't wear a collar. "I bet your name is Patches or Spot or something equally uninspired and unoriginal. But a true king like you deserves something much more majestic, don't you think?" She cupped his face in her hands. "And, as there's only one king worthy of being christened after, I hereby name you Elvis."
He licked her wrist.
"I hope that means you like your new name and aren't trying a taste test before chomping on my arm. I'm rather fond of it. My arm. And your new name, actually." She straightened. "My mom always said I didn't know enough to get out of the rain and I'd really like to prove her wrongfor once. What say we head into town? How do you feel about birthday cake?"
Elvis looked her up and down, then obviously finding her lacking, sat.
"Yeah? Well, let me tell you something, Your Majesty, you don't look so hot right now, either. And you stink."
The dog turned his face away, his black-and-pink nose lifted in the air.
"Oh, don't be so sensitive. Just speaking the truth here. Look, my Jeep has a brand-new dentwhich means I'm going to hear, yet again, how careless, reckless and hopeless I amall because of you. But you don't see me holding a grudge, do you? You have two choices hereyou can come with me, get something to eat, get cleaned up and spend the rest of the night warm and dry. Or you can stay here, wet and miserable and, yes, smelly. What's it going to be?"
Elvis looked at her, then the woods, the road and then her again.
"Really? This is something you have to think about?" Her hair was dripping and she was soaked through to her underwearwhich was sticking to her skin. She blinked water from her eyes. "You know what? Maybe I should rescind my offer. After all, it looks as if you're doing just dandy without any help from me."
Elvis got to his feet slowly and, it seemed to Sadie, with a great deal of resignation, and crossed to her. Nudged her thigh with his head.
"Yeah," she said. "That's what I thought."
He followed her to the Jeep. She opened the passenger-side door and he hopped onto the seat, lifting and lowering his legsall the better to spread muddy paw prints over the light gray fabric.
"You missed a spot," Sadie told him, but he ignored her sardonic tone and sat, looking very much the regal ruler ready to be driven to his castle.
She shut the door and hurried around to the driver's side. "I bet you're starving," she said as she started the engine. "After birthday cake, we'll order a pizza. Double pepperoni."
Shivering, she buckled up and blasted the heat. Thanks to the Jeep's four-wheel drive, they were on the road a minute later, heading toward Shady Groveand all the memories, conflicted familial relationships and emotional baggage that went along with going home.
"Well?" James Montesano's mother asked as she measured grounds into the coffeemaker.
Through the open window over the sink, the scents of rain and wood smoke drifted into the kitchen. When the rain started twenty minutes ago, the birthday guests had abandoned the fire ring set on the lower tier of the three-level deck to settle inside, either in the living room, where James's grandfather played the fiddle, or in the game room in the basement, from where bursts of raucous laughteralong with the occasional good-natured cursefloated upstairs.
No matter what the occasion, the time of year or the weather, his mom threw one hell of a party.
"Well what?" He eyed the leftover sheet cake. They'd done the whole singing thingthough he'd gotten out of the candle tradition by letting his seven-year-old nephew, Max, blow them out. James had already had two scoops of ice cream plus two servings of the German chocolate cake with coconut pecan frosting.
Aw, what the hell? If a man couldn't have extra cake on his birthday, what was the point of getting another year older?
Stretching onto her toes, Rose reached over the sink and turned the handle, closing the window. "What do you think of Anne?"
James cut a large square of cake and set it on one of his mother's fancy dessert plates. He licked frosting from the side of his thumb. "Who?"
"Anne." His mother snapped the lid of the coffeemaker shut and turned it on. "Anne Forbes. The pretty brunette in the dark blue dress?" He shook his head and she sighed heavily. "The new painter?"
Right. Kloss Painting and Wallpaper's newest hire. Brunette. Blue dress. Early thirties. "She seems capable. Has some good ideas for the kitchen and dining room at Bradford House."