In this gripping novel of suspense by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Jackson, a small timber town nestled in the shadow of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains is the perfect place for a killer to hide… For the wealthy Buchanans, the town of Prosperity has delivered everything its name promises. Not that Cassidy Buchanan cares about money, cars, or expensive clothes—unlike her beautiful older sister. All Cassidy wants is to ride her horses. Then her father hires Brig McKenzie, a handsome troublemaker who ignites a storm of rivalry. By summer’s end, a fatal fire rages through the Buchanans’ saw mill, tearing the family apart—and Brig disappears, presumed guilty of arson. Seventeen years later, Cassidy has never stopped trying to uncover the truth about that terrible crime. Now married to Brig’s brother, Chase, she’s come back to Prosperity to find closure. Instead, she encounters a fresh nightmare. Another fire is set, deliberate and deadly. Some view Cassidy as a suspect—others believe she’s the target. All Cassidy knows for sure is that neither her family nor her marriage is quite what it seems. And that her own final scream may be the last sound she ever hears…
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Almost Thirteen Years Later
It was a clear winter day when the Christmas parade wound its way down Alvin's Main Street. Which, of course, meant it was cold. Dewey said it smelled like snow, but I told him he was crazy. First off, it ain't never snowed in Alvin far as I know, and second, it wasn't that cold. I guessed it to be probably in the midforties somewhere. Still, I was glad I had my heavy jacket on. I wasn't used to this sort of weather.
We were all standing together as close as we could, which was extremely strange for my sister, Carry. Normally, Carry liked to be as far away from everyone else as she could get, but I guess huddling to keep warm took precedence over trying to look cool. Other than me, Dewey, and Carry, there was my uncle Henry, who had come down to spend the holidays with us.
Christmas was barely two weeks away, and boy you could sure feel the excitement in the air. I loved Christmas. It was the best day of the year as far as I was rightly concerned. My mother always played Elvis songs at Christmastime and he had this one that was called something like "If Every Day Was Christmas." I found myself thinking that same question all the time. Of course, then it probably wouldn't be so special. Which sounded just like something my mother would say.
More and more, I found myself saying stuff that sounded like it should be coming out of her mouth instead of mine.
Carry was extra lucky. She not only got Christmas to celebrate, but four days later, she got her birthday, too. If she had been born just four days earlier, she'd have the same birthday as baby Jesus. I'm glad she didn't. That would be just too weird.
"Here they come!" Uncle Henry said. "Can you see all right, Abe?" he asked me.
"I certainly can!" I said.
Down the street, the float my mother was on turned the corner and came into view. There was a tall riser up front where Hubert James Robertson, the mayor of Alvin, stood waving to people on both sides of the street. Beside him, on much lower risers, stood my mother on his left and Officer Chris Jackson on his right. Both my mother and Chris worked for the Alvin Police Department. Chris was just a regular officer, but my mother was a detective, which meant she didn't have to drive around in a special car or wear a special uniform. She could go out looking any way she wanted. Although, sometimes, she worked as a normal officer, too. They were the only two police officers in Alvin other than Police Chief Ethan Montgomery, who ran things at the station.
"Where's Chief Montgomery?" I asked, blinking into the sun as I looked up at Uncle Henry. A cold breeze hit my pant legs, sending a chill up my body.
Uncle Henry shielded his eyes with his hand, almost looking like he was saluting someone. "I don't know. You'd reckon he'd be on there, too."
There were all sorts of floats. The one my mother was on didn't seem to "be" anything in particular, but the one coming up behind it was a pirate ship advertising the Alvin First National Bank. It was big and it blocked out most of the stores on the other side of the street. It had a huge Union Jack flag that flapped and snapped in the winter wind.
"Isn't that a weird float for a bank?" I asked.
"What do you mean?" Dewey asked back.
"I mean, didn't pirates steal money? It's like they're sayin' they're gonna steal your money."
"You think too much, Abe," Uncle Henry said.
"Maybe they're sayin' that they'll steal money for you and put it into your account," Dewey offered.
"Maybe it's just a friggin' pirate ship," Carry said.
She could be very unsociable at times.
Someone in a giant kangaroo suit came bounding down the side of the road and stopped right in front of us, waving.
I waved back, but the kangaroo didn't move on. It just kept waving. I felt very awkward and uncomfortable, waving from the sidewalk with the kangaroo two feet from me, waving from the street. Finally, the kangaroo reached up and took off its giant head. It was Police Chief Montgomery. "You guys all havin' fun?"
"Um, yeah. It's dandy," Dewey said.
"It's okay," I said.
"My feet are killin' me," Carry whined. "How much longer is this thing anyway?"
"They're all having a terrific time," Uncle Henry said, swatting the back of Carry's head.
Chief Montgomery leaned in, and whispered to Carry, "At least you don't have to hop around in a stupid kangaroo suit. My legs feel like Jell-O. I can't wait until this is over. I reckon there's only three or four more floats until the big guy comes round and finishes it."
"The big guy?" Dewey asked.
"You know," Chief Montgomery said. "Mr. C? Ho ho ho? St. Nick?"
"Santa Claus!" A huge smile beamed from Dewey's face.
Oh my God, he didn't really still believe in Santa, did he? Me and Dewey were practically exactly the same age. Our birthdays were within days of each other, which meant he would be thirteen in March. Someone had to put an end to this.
"Dewey," I said, "you do know there is no real Santa, right?"
I got instant glares from three people. Even Carry joined into the Glare Group.
"What?" I asked. "He's almost thirteen for cryin' out loud. Do you want him to go into the workforce believin' in the tooth fairy?"
"Wait," Dewey said, sounding dejected. "There's no Santa and no tooth fairy?"
"Dewey, you have no baby teeth left. Why do you even care 'bout the tooth fairy?"
"She was nice to me. She gave me money."
"He's got a point, ass face," Carry said. Uncle Henry swatted the back of her head again.
"Language," he said. To me, he didn't sound too much like he meant it.
"Are you serious about Santa?" Dewey asked.
I took a deep breath and let it go, looking at all the heads shaking behind Dewey's back. I smiled. It was a terribly faked smile. "No, Dewey, I'm just pullin' your leg. Of course there's a Santa Claus. Who else would be eatin' those carrots and drinkin' that milk you put out?"
His face immediately transformed. The wonder was back. It sort of peeved me off because he was living in a world much more spectacular than the one I was.
"And just so you know," he said, "I am aware there is no Easter bunny."
I squinted at him. "Why do you reckon there's no Easter bunny, yet you believe in Santa?"
"Duh. Why the heck would rabbits be givin' out eggs? It makes absolutely no sense."
"He's got a point," Uncle Henry said.
Everyone fell silent and I realized the Existence of Santa Claus and Other Miscellaneous Childhood Lies discussion had come to an end. The silence was finally broken by Uncle Henry asking Carry: "So, what does my little sugar plum want for her birthday this year?"
Carry smiled. "It's super cool."
"What is it?"
"I want you and my mom" — she hesitated and examined me and Dewey — "and I guess you two little rug rats too if you want, to come with me to a psychic while I get my fortune told."
"What a neat idea," Uncle Henry said. "But if you want me there, you're gonna have to do it earlier than your birthday. I'm only stayin' until the mornin' after Christmas and then I have to go."
"Okay, I'll talk to Mom. Maybe we can book an appointment this week. I reckon it'll be so cool."
"Just remember, sugar plum, a lot of those so-called psychics are frauds. They only tell you what you wanna hear. Or they're gypsies. Gypsies give me the willies."
"I'm not gonna tell her what I wanna hear. I'm not gonna answer any questions. I wanna see what she can figure out without me sayin' a word."
"Well, that sure should be interestin' to watch."
"Maybe I'll find out that one day I'll be rich," Carry said.
"Or that you'll die an early death in a house fire before you're twenty," Dewey said.
We all looked at him. "What?" he asked.
"Oh, nothin'," I said. "There's just somethin' wrong with you, is all."
Me and Dewey were playing tag in the backyard. Tag was one of those games we didn't play for very long, on account of there being just the two of us and it getting a mite boring. You really need more than two people to play tag properly. Mainly, it was just fun being outside this close to Christmas. Me and my mother had spent the last weekend hanging lights up around the eaves of the house. Now it looked really Christmassy. I just couldn't wait for Christmas to come.
One game we used to play a lot of I would call "balancing rocks on sticks." It consisted of taking a stick and a rock and trying to see how long you could go with the rock on the end of the stick before it fell off. Now this was more of a sport for two people. In fact, you could just as easily do it with one person. It was the perfect multiplayer game.
Truth be told, there just wasn't much to do outside in the afternoon in winter in Alvin. Tag or otherwise. We were too used to the heat to stay outside too long in the cold, and some days it would rain something fierce and it felt like God was throwing ice at you. My backyard wasn't the most fun place on the planet to hang out on those days. Sometimes we'd just run around to stay warm.
Even the trees looked like they hated it outside. We had two cherry trees in the backyard and neither had any leaves left. All the leaves had fallen off and died. I was starting to feel like them leaves, as Dewey touched me, and yelled, "You're It!"
I decided I couldn't be It for one more round. "Let's stop playin'," I said.
"How come, Abe?" Dewey asked.
"Well, for one, I'm outta breath. For two, it's too damn cold out here. I'm dyin', Dewey."
"What's for three?"
"Um ..." I knew for three had to be the cincher. "For three, I think we can probably go inside and get my mom to make us some hot cocoa."
"That sounds great!"
Dewey never gave up a chance for free food, no matter what it was. It was his weakness, the way Superman couldn't go near kryptonite. Everyone has a weakness I think, and Dewey's was rustling up free food. We could be having the time of our lives and I could stop, and tell him, "Hey, old Newt Parker just called and invited us over for raccoon, wanna go?" And Dewey would be on his bike in a flash, ready to make the trip.
Newt Parker was no longer with the living souls of this world, but when he was here, many folk thought he ate barbecued roadkill. Myself, I have no convictions either way as to whether or not the rumors were true or false. I do know this, though. I had enough belief that the rumors could be true that I would never go for a barbecue at Newt Parker's house. Dewey, on the other hand, would go in a flash, if for no other reason than to be able to tell people he ate barbecued road-killed raccoon with Newt Parker. That's just how Dewey was.
So, compared to the dead raccoon, my offer of hot cocoa was a quick way to get me out of the stark cold of the backyard and into the warmth of the house.
We got inside and pulled off our boots. It took Dewey at least twice as long as me to get his off his feet on account of I think he outgrew his last year or something. Do twelve-year-old feet even still grow? I had no idea. Maybe his ma just bought them too small. Dewey's ma wasn't the sharpest crayon in the box. Of course, I never told that to Dewey.
My own mother was in the kitchen on the phone. Carry kneeled on a chair beside her, anxiously watching while my mother made some phone calls. I figured out pretty quick what they were doing — they were trying to book a psychic to see Carry for her birthday present. By the sounds of things, they weren't having much luck.
"No," my mother said, "it needs to be between now and Christmas. Sometime this week would be best ... okay, thank you for your time." She hung up and looked at Carry. "That's eight I've called. They're all not working through the holidays."
Carry frowned. "Stupid psychics. Don't they know that's when they'd get their most business?"
"Maybe it's just as well," my mother said.
"Don't give up now!" Carry said. "There's still some you haven't tried."
"I know, and I will, I just don't want you to get your hopes up too high."
"If they're all psychic and stuff," Dewey said, "why do you have to call them? Shouldn't they just know you're comin'?"
I looked at Dewey. "You're an idiot."
My mother said, "I reckon he has a very good point."
Carry didn't hear the exchange at all. She had her head in the phone book. "Try this one. Madame Crystalle — True Psychic Medium from Persia. One hundred percent satisfaction or your money returned in full."
"Wow," my mother said, "that's going out on a limb. And she's not a gypsy if she's from Persia. I'm a little leery of gypsies. Okay, what's the number?"
Carry told her as my mother dialed. "Hello, I'd like to book an appointment with Madame Crystalle. ... Oh, that's you. Well, hi. My name's Leah and I'm the detective here in Alvin and my daughter, Caroline, would like to see you and get her fortune read for her birthday. ... It would have to be sometime this week. I know, it's sort of last minute." My mother always told everyone she was the detective here. I think she thought it brought her some kind of respect or something that she wouldn't get otherwise.
She stopped talking, held the phone away, and said to Carry, "She's gone to get her schedule."
Placing the handset back to her mouth, she said, "Yes, I'm still here ... tomorrow? Yes, tomorrow works fine. What time? Two o'clock. Perfect. Oh, and is it okay to bring along her family to watch? Okay, that's great. Thank you."
My mother hung up and smiled at Carry. "You're goin' tomorrow at two!"
Carry beamed back. "This is goin' to be so awesome! Thank you, Mother!"
"What if she tells you somethin' bad?" Dewey asked.
"Why are you being so negative?" my mother asked back.
"Because most things are bad. Read a newspaper or watch the news. You never see happy stuff."
"I'm sure Carry's stuff will all be nice and happy."
"Yeah, but what if it isn't? What if she says, 'Your mother's gonna get shot next Wednesday while on duty'?"
"Dewey!" my mother snapped. Even I looked at him like this was out of line.
"I'm just sayin' she could, so you should be prepared for somethin' like that."
"I reckon maybe it's time for you to go home," my mother told him.
"Actually," I said, "we was hopin' for some hot cocoa."
My mother took another look at Dewey and exhaled slowly. "All right, but no more talk about 'bad stuff,' you hear?"
"Yes, ma'am," Dewey said.
He fell quiet. I just looked at him, and whispered, "You're an idiot."
The psychic's shop turned out to be a very small building that me and Dewey had ridden by on our bikes many times and had not noticed. The shop couldn't have been more than ten feet tall with a sign in the window that read:
Madame Crystalle True Psychic Medium 100% satisfaction Or your money returned in full.
The pink blinds behind the sign were pulled closed, so you couldn't see inside. A large shrub hid most of one side of the building. The rest of the building was painted black, which was obviously the reason me and Dewey never saw it. You don't normally look for small black buildings while out on bike rides.
The only really strange thing on the outside of the place was this statue right beside the door. It stood between the sidewalk and the steps leading up to the door, facing down toward the hustle and bustle of town. It was a frog standing on his hind legs. It stared wall-eyed down Main Street at all the other shops. In its hands it held a top hat, and its mouth was wide open with a bright red tongue. It seemed so out of place it took a minute for my brain to even figure out what I was looking at. Me and Dewey must've missed it because it was set back a bit, and you had to look right at the building to see it.
"Why is there a frog standin' here starin' off down the street?" I asked my mother. "It looks kind of creepy."
"I don't rightly know, Abe, but I think maybe we should all go inside before we freeze to death," my mother said.
"Reminds me of that frog from that cartoon," Dewey said. "The one that will only dance and sing for one guy. Only this one wouldn't fit in a shoebox."
"I agree with Abe for once," Carry said. "It's really creepy. No wonder she was available for a readin'. She probably scares off most customers with this frog."
"Now, don't go writin' her off just because of some crazy statue outside her shop," Uncle Henry said. "Look at her sign. It says, 'True Psychic Medium.' Not only that, she'll refund your money if you ain't satisfied. I'd say that's pretty darn good. I also agree with your mom. We should go inside before we freeze."
Excerpted from "A Thorn Among the Lilies"
Copyright © 2005 Susan Lisa Jackson.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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