Even though Lucky wasn't sure about this assignment, Annie drove him crazy, in more ways than one which made their task all the more torturous: Annie and Lucky set out to look like a happy couple. As their faux relationship turned all too real and passionate, the killer came in for one last deadly showdown.
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Annie came up off the bed with a gasp, one hand flying to her sweaty forehead, the other gripping the sheet beneath her. Not again. Not that same damn dream again. Her heart was pumping so hard and fast she could feel it, and a sheen of perspiration that wasn't normal on such a cool morning covered her face and made her lightweight pajamas stick to her skin.
She left the bed quickly—as if she could escape the dream that way—peeling off her pajamas as she walked to the master bath to turn on the shower. Standing beneath the spray with her eyes closed, she tried to imagine the dream washing away and swirling down the drain. It didn't, of course. It stayed with her much too vividly.
In the dream, a handsome man and a pretty dark-haired woman sat on a blue couch, happy for the moment. Obliviously, innocently happy and very much in love. They were bathed in a pink glow, as if their love surrounded and protected them. Their world was small, and sweet, and they saw nothing before them but years and years of love and togetherness.
All of a sudden he was there without warning, with a knife in his hand and an anger that colored the edges of the dream red. With that anger boiling and raging, he killed them.
Annie shampooed her short, blond hair and began to scrub as if she were washing away the blood she'd seen in her nightmare. Tears stung her eyes, but she didn't cry. She'd had the dream four nights in a row, and she didn't know what to do.
This wasn't the first time she'd had dreams that were more than dreams, but it had been a long while. She'd been so sure the aberration was over—gone—finished, once and for all. Apparently this curse or ability she'd never wanted had just been pushed deep. Something had caused it to rise to the surface, and she'd do whatever she had to in order to make the dreams stop.
Annie's psychic gift had been inherited from her grandmother on her mother's side. Grams had told her long ago that if she didn't exercise the ability it would eventually go away. It was no different than being naturally good at baseball but choosing not to play the game. Since being psychic hadn't done Grams any good at all, deciding not to play had been easy for Annie. For the most part, it worked. Since she didn't exercise the ability, it didn't often surface. But now and then, she had the dreams....
Last time something like this had happened, Annie had been twenty-two years old and unbelievably naive. Grams, the only person who might truly understand, had been gone three years by that time. Unable to turn to her recently divorced parents, and unsure about how her friends would react, Annie made the worst mistake of her life. She went to the police.
That wasn't a mistake she cared to repeat. Wrapped in a towel, her short hair towel-dried and the latest dream still too closely with her, Annie went to her computer. She needed help—serious help—and she wasn't sure where to turn. She wasn't going to make the same mistake twice. It had been five years since the fiasco in Nashville, and she would not allow the heartbreak and embarrassment to be repeated. She liked it here in Mercerville, Tennessee, tucked into the mountains in what had to be one of the most naturally beautiful spots in the world. She had friends here, and her business was doing well. Tourists who came here for the serenity of the mountains found her one-of-a-kind hats and handbags intriguing. They told their friends, who called and placed orders by phone. One customer at a time, the business had grown. She had two small but prosperous shops in the area—one in Mercerville and another in Wears Valley—and was thinking of opening a third in Pigeon Forge. She had a life, a good life, and she wasn't going to throw it away by confronting police officers who would just laugh at her.
But she had to do something. Someone had to stop this madman who'd killed two people simply because they were happy.
She keyed "private investigator" into the search engine, and scrolled down the first page, her fingers trembling. She'd be best off finding someone in the southeast, but not right in her backyard. When this was finished, she wouldn't want the person who'd helped her to be too close.
Nothing jumped out at her right away so she continued, going to the next page and scanning the names. There were so many! Who could she trust with this? Who would take care of the matter without bringing her neat little world crashing down onto her head?
On the third page it happened. A name seemed to pop off the page, brighter than the rest. It drew her eye in an unnatural way, making her heart lurch. She read the first line, which told just a little bit about the company Web site. They were based in Alabama. Close, but not too close. In an instant Annie knew without doubt she'd found someone who could help her.
The Benning Agency.
Lucky kicked his feet up on the desk in his home office, holding his ear to the phone and listening to it ring on the other end. One, two, three rings. He was wondering where Sadie could be so early on a Monday morning, and trying to decide if he wanted to leave a message on the machine or not, when someone answered.
Great. Just what he needed. "Hi. Is your mommy—"
"My name's Grant," the overly enthusiastic young voice proclaimed. "Yes, I know. I—"
"I have a baby sister," Grant said enthusiastically.
"She's new. Her name is Reagan."
"I like her, but sometimes she stinks."
There should be a law against three-year-olds answering the telephone. "This is Uncle Lucky," he said quickly and precisely.
"Hey! You gave me a toy gun for my birthday!"
"Yes, I did. Can I—"
"Daddy only lets me play with my toy gun sometimes, not always. When I'm the Incredible Spiderman I don't need a gun because I have my spidey powers."
Lucky sighed, and gave up on his hopes of talking to Sadie anytime soon. "No, Spiderman doesn't—"
"The Incredible Spiderman!" the kid corrected with enthusiasm. And then he started making what were probably supposed to be spidey sounds.
"Can I speak to your mother?" Lucky spoke loudly to be heard above the din.
"You didn't say please."
"She's changing a diaper right now. I have a baby sister! Her name is Reagan. Sometimes she stinks."
Grant could be amusing, but he was getting repetitive and that was never a good thing. "If you'll take the phone to your mother, I'll bring you some candy next time I visit."
Grant paused for a split second. "M&M's?"
"Whatever you want."
Suddenly Grant's voice was distant, as the kid held the portable phone away from his mouth and called, "Mommy! It's Unca Lucky!"
A few moments later, Sadie uttered a breathless "Hello?"
Without responding to the greeting, Lucky said, "You let a kid who's barely three years old answer the phone?"
His old partner laughed. Man, there were days when he missed that laugh more than he dared to admit. "He taught himself. What can I say?"
"You can start by telling him not to give his name over the phone until he knows who he's talking to."
Sadie sighed. "Thanks for letting me know. I'll take care of it. Nobody told me two kids would be ten times as much work as one. Twice as much I expected, that makes sense, but...I swear, Lucky, I have completely lost control."
Sadie had lost control the minute she'd hooked up with Truman McCain, but that was an argument she didn't want to hear. "I know the feeling. Heather left a couple of days ago." Saturday afternoon, to be exact.
"Why?" Sadie managed to sound outraged, even though she had never liked Heather and hadn't been shy about saying so.
"She said I'm commitment phobic."
"Well," Sadie said, less outrage in her voice, "you are. I mean, you and Heather were together for what, five months? That's the longest I've ever known you to stay with one woman."
"Siding with the enemy?"
"You didn't love her, and I can tell you're not all that upset that she's gone.You're just peeved because she left first. She wasn't right for you, anyway. She was like all your other women—drop-dead gorgeous and shallow and temporary and not too smart. Maybe you should let me pick the next one." There was more than a touch of humor in her voice as she made that ridiculous suggestion.
Lucky heard Grant's insistent voice in the background. "You will not bring this child candy next time you visit," Sadie declared, the tone of her voice changing dramatically. "Do you have any idea what Grant's like when he ingests too much sugar?"
"Oh, yeah. I was at the birthday party, remember?" Lucky hadn't missed any of Grant's birthday parties. Sadie's husband, Truman, who was now sheriff of the small county where they lived their chaotic and ideal life, had once been suspicious of Lucky's motives where Sadie was concerned. In nearly four years Truman had come to accept that his wife and the man who had once been her partner were just friends. The best of friends, but still...just friends.
It was only on the bad days that Lucky acknowledged that he had once been a little bit in love with Sadie. On the worst of days, he wondered if he still was.
"When are you going to come see the baby?" Sadie asked. "She's beautiful."
"I hear she stinks." In spite of the bad mood he'd been in when he'd made this call, Lucky smiled widely.
"I have air freshener. Just don't wear your best suit."
"So," she continued, "when?"
"I don't know." He wasn't very good company for anyone these days. "I've been spending a few days at home, and Cal has me training a handful of new guys this week. After that, who knows?"
The Benning Agency had grown since Sadie's departure. Flynn Benning still owned the agency, but he was rarely around anymore. He had his hands full with a new family and a new career. Teaching, of all things. Cal ran the show, and there were now more than twenty agents—men and women—employed by the once small agency. They were thinking of branching out and opening an office in Nashville, or maybe Atlanta. It had even been mentioned that Lucky might head up a Nashville office, since he kept a house less than an hour away. Most of the others lived near the main office in rural Alabama, but Lucky liked to get away from it all when he wasn't working a case.
He'd been asking himself lately—did he want to head up the Nashville office, if it came to that? It sounded an awful lot like a real job.
"You have to be here for Thanksgiving," Sadie said.
"The new house will be finished by then, and I have great holiday plans."
"Like you don't have your hands full enough as it is. What happened to ten times the work with two kids?"
"It'll be a lot of work, it'll be a huge hassle. I know that. But I want a big, traditional Thanksgiving in my new house," Sadie insisted. "And you have to be here. It just wouldn't be the same without you."
Lucky hated to admit that he needed anything, but he needed Sadie in his life. He even needed Grant and Truman and the new baby. The situation was almost ideal. He could visit whenever he wanted, share their perfect little family life for a while and then leave the chaos and go back to his well-ordered life, where nothing ever stunk and he never had to say please to get what he wanted.
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