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For those who enjoyed Say No More, this is another dog story, but it's also a romantic comedy and cozy mystery featuring an accidental female sleuth.
Can't make up your mind? Here are the book description and a preview chapter:
There’s an arsonist on the loose in rural Wilton, Indiana — and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep from being found out. Even murder.
Out of work, accident prone, and dateless, Sam McNamee packs up her belongings and her daughter to move to the Florida Keys, where she can pen love stories as S.A. Mack to ease the lingering pain of her husband’s death. First, though, she has to help her dad sell his home of forty-plus years. It just might be the hardest job she’s ever tackled. He’s a hoarder; she’s a neat freak.
The night she returns to Wilton, Sam plows into a mangy mutt on a rain-slicked country road. Bump, the dog she rescues, has a history that drags Sam and her family into a web of danger, making her father a prime suspect.
Feuds and secrets run deep in Humboldt County. Sam can’t leave until the arsonist is uncovered. Not that she’d want to anymore, since veterinarian Clint Chastain has stolen her heart.
This wasn’t how I’d planned things. I was supposed to be ensconced somewhere in the Keys by now, sipping on a mint mojito, sea foam swirling around my Adirondack chair while I tapped furiously at the keyboard of my netbook.
Instead, I was headed deep into the cornfields of Eastern Indiana. So much space. So few people.
The next few weeks were going to be hell.
Rain slapped against the windshield in a percussive roar, drowning out the melody of the song on the radio. I fumbled blindly with the knobs, afraid to take my eyes off the road. I flipped through the stations until I found some obnoxiously upbeat techno dance music and cranked the volume. Anything to keep myself alert. With every swish of the wiper blades, I had a clear view for about half a second; then water gushed down from the sky, distorting the world beyond my hood into an out-of-focus black and white photo.
I knew these roads too well. Knew the exact spot where it had happened, just around the bend from where we were now. My heart clenched at the memory of that night: the phone call at fourteen minutes past midnight, the twirling lights, the unremitting drizzle, the mangled metal …
My eyes drifted shut. As my head bobbed forward, I snapped back to awareness, adrenaline crashing through my veins, my senses sharpened. My pulse drummed in my ears, the rhythm of my heart a rapid staccato.
Stay awake, Samantha Ann McNamee, I told myself. This is no time to fall asleep at the wheel. You have precious cargo in the backseat.
A burst of red and white flashed in my rearview mirror, spiraling me into memories of that fateful night. I focused on the vehicle approaching from behind: a police car. The piercing wail of its siren rose above the roar of rain. Behind me, my daughter Tara mumbled and pulled her hood down over her eyes.
Had I been speeding? Swerving, maybe? I started to pull off to the side, sure I was going to get a ticket. Both right wheels had barely hit the gravel shoulder when the patrol car veered into the left lane and edged up beside me. Blood pounding, I lifted my foot from the accelerator and tapped at the brake.
A wall of water hit my windshield as the police car sped past. I breathed a sigh of relief. It barreled down the rain slicked road, then turned into a lane partly shrouded by a thick stand of trees.
There, the uneven silhouette of a house set close to the road appeared in scattered bursts of lightning. Yellow caution tape was draped from tree to tree all around the house. Fire trucks surrounded the house, but there was no fire. Not anymore. An ambulance was parked in front of the house. Two EMTs were wheeling a stretcher out the front door. On it was a body bag.
Whoever it was, they’d arrived too late.
I glanced at the road for a second to make sure I wasn’t drifting off onto the shoulder, then looked back at the house. Another lightning flash, prolonged, revealed part of the roof was missing. Jagged trusses, charred in places, poked above uneven exterior walls.
Looked like the place had been ravaged by fire. I stepped on the gas, eager to get away from there. Vehicles with flashing lights brought back too many terrible memories. The farther away I got, the better.
The house slipped from my peripheral vision and I returned my sights to the road ahead. It dipped into a small valley carved by a narrow, but swift-moving creek, then rose again before curving to the right.
I slapped my thighs to keep myself awake. We should have arrived hours ago. Damn those movers for taking their sweet time. Except for the few suitcases and gym bags stuffed into the rear of my Subaru Forester, all my belongings were now sitting somewhere in a moldy, cockroach-infested storage unit on Chicago’s West Side. Why hadn’t I stopped a couple of hours ago down the road? I could’ve called ahead, told my dad we’d gotten a late start and the storm was just too much.
Too late now. We were less than ten minutes away. Not that I was eager to return to my childhood home, mind you, but when you were tight on money and had just lost a steady job —
The scope of the headlights caught a reflection in a nearby field. Instinctively, I yanked the wheel to the left, my foot drawing back from the gas pedal to hit the brake. A pair of glowing orbs stared back at me, hovering at road’s edge, ready to bound out into my path. This time I punched the brake, inadvertently steering right. The wheels chattered over rain-slickened asphalt as the anti-lock mechanism kicked in. The rear end of my Forester fishtailed toward the ditch, the muddy channel carved deep by a recent backhoe job. Rubber squealed as the tires bit into the road. My hands locked on the steering wheel. I let up on the brake, momentum still propelling the car irretrievably forward as the bright yellow dots flew toward me.
A squeal ripped from the backseat. Tara slapped her palms against my headrest as she grabbed hold.
The right rear tire plunged off the edge of the pavement, thudding loudly, and then scudded on the gravel shoulder for what seemed like an eternity, although it was no more than a few seconds. There was a soft thump as the front bumper clipped an object. The car lurched to a halt, one tire dipping into the ditch.
For several seconds, all I could hear were the sharp, rapid breaths of my daughter behind me. Finally, I remembered to breathe, too. The steady pounding of rain on the windows came back into focus.
After throwing the shifter into park, I peered into the rearview mirror, but the glow from the dashboard wasn’t enough to see anything. I groped at the ceiling, flicked the overhead light on. “Are you okay, honey?”
Please, please, please be okay.
The car was still in one piece. At least as far as I could tell. The airbags hadn’t even deployed. Why wasn’t she answering me?
I glanced in the side mirror to make sure there were no oncoming cars, then unbuckled myself and twisted around to look in the backseat. Tara was curled into a ball, arms over her face. “Tara?”
“Yeah,” she croaked in a whisper, “I’m here.”
“I think so. You just scared the crap out of me, that’s all.” Her hands peeled away from her face. She looked up sheepishly. “I was asleep. What happened?”
Groaning, I sat facing front again. Pain hammered at the top of my skull. “I think I hit something.”
“Like what? A tree, a mailbox?”
I didn’t want to get out of the car and look. Didn’t want to know. Maybe I could just put the car in reverse, back out of the ditch, and go on?
“A deer, maybe?”
“No,” I said, “not that big.”
The faux leather of the seat squeaked as Tara scooted herself upright and pressed her nose to the window. “I hope it wasn’t a skunk.”
“We would have smelled it by now.”
“Oh. Guess you’re right.”
Clutching the shifter, I slid it into reverse.
“No!” Tara’s frantic scream bored into my ear canal.
“No what?” I wanted to yell at her to calm down, but she was hyperventilating already. The best course in this situation was to remain calm and act like it was no big deal. If I keyed in to her anxiety in the smallest bit, she’d erupt in full blown hysteria within a minute.
“You might back over it,” she said quietly. “Hurt it worse. Whatever it is.”
I flicked on the hazard lights and cut the engine. “I’m sure it’s all right. Probably just a raccoon or possum. Bet it ran off into the cornfield already. I’m going to check, okay? Then we’ll go on. Should be to Gramp’s place in fifteen, twenty minutes, tops.”
She stared out the window into the darkness. I wasn’t surprised that she had no reaction to arriving at my dad’s house. After all, she probably barely remembered him.
After another long silence, Tara turned her face toward me, her earthy brown eyes pressed into a squint. She pointed above her head. “Can I turn off that light? It’s really bright and I can’t see outside.”
Tara punched the light off and turned back to the window, her breath steaming it in drifting circles.
“Be right back.” I tugged the hood of my Nike jacket over my head and pulled on the door latch. I gave it a light push, expecting it to open wide, but the tilt of the car leaning into the ditch had gravity working against me. My left foot was barely dangling out of the car when the door swung back and smashed into my ankle.
“Shit! Shit, shit, shit —”
I knew what was coming before she said it. At just shy of fifteen, she was just entering the height of snarkiness. She’d inherited the trait from her father. It was one of the things I had loved most about Kyle — that edgy wit. Humor, in whatever form, was its own special kind of intelligence and Tara had it in spades. It also annoyed the hell out of me.
“Unless you just stepped in a cow patty, that is not —”
“How about ‘damn it’?” I snapped. It had been a long drive already and I wasn’t in the mood to debate semantics. “I just slammed the door on my leg. Is ‘damn it’ appropriate?” Cursing was my biggest vice — if you didn’t count my lack of social interests — and Tara had picked it up early. Two years old, if I recalled. Since I couldn’t tell her not to do what I so freely and often did, I’d tried hard to teach her to use language selectively. If you’re going to cuss, I’d told her, do it under your breath. It hadn’t always been successful. Nothing like getting a call from your daughter’s second grade principal telling you she had told a classmate to “shut the hell up” for talking during an assembly. I’d had to stifle a laugh. Chronologically, she may have been eight then, but mentally she was twenty-eight.
“Sure, I suppose you could damn the door.” She wiped at the breath-fog on the glass with her sleeve. “If it makes you feel better.”
If I said anything else, this was going to turn into a parent-child verbal brawl. I was too tired to go there, so I let it slide. I’d talk to her tomorrow about toning down the sarcasm. Right now, I just wanted a pillow and a soft bed. Heck, even a couch would do. Knowing my dad, that was probably the best I could hope for.
I probed both sides of my ankle where the door edge had pinched it. No swelling. Yet. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find a bruise there tomorrow. I may have had the physique of a natural athlete, but in grade school I’d managed to fall flat on my butt while playing tetherball, hopscotch, and musical chairs. I’d long since figured out that avoiding physical activity was the best way to avert my own early demise.
“Hand me the flashlight from the glove compartment, will you?” Tara said.
“Well, if you aren’t going to find out what you hit, I will.”
I pointed a finger at her to shush her, then realized she probably couldn’t see it in the dark. “You just sit tight and keep your seatbelt on. I’ll be back in a second.”
Even her sigh was surly. I dug around in the overstuffed glove compartment until I found the skinny LED flashlight my boss had doled out to all the employees last Christmas. Former boss, actually. At first it had seemed like such a cheap gift, but it had come in handy more than once already. Little did I know that Top Floor Media’s parent company was already starting to shave off its unprofitable subsidiaries. Had I been aware, I would’ve started looking for a job sooner.
In the end, though, it was a blessing in disguise. If I’d had time to think about it, I probably would’ve started looking for a new job. A real job. The kind where you had to clock in at 8 a.m. sharp, then would spend the next nine hours watching the second hand on the clock crawl backward. I’d just spent sixteen years doing that, jotting down grocery lists in the margins of the manuscripts I was supposed to be proofreading because the sex scenes were so boring that snagging a crate of Clementine oranges on sale provided more excitement than inserting commas or suggesting synonyms for private body parts.
With a grunt of exasperation, I kicked the door open wide. A wall of rain slammed into me. Muttering under my breath, I yanked my zipper up all the way, then heaved myself out into the typhoon and shut the door. I clicked the flashlight on and shone it down the length of the driver’s side. Nothing. No dings, no scrapes. No dead bodies. So far so good.
A quick scan up and down the road told me all was clear. Amazing how remote this place seemed for only being a few miles off the highway. Back in Chicago, you couldn’t go two minutes without a car going down the road, even after midnight — and that was in our suburban neighborhood in Naperville.
Better get used to the isolation, I told myself. At least for the next few weeks. Or however long this was going to take until I got Dad packed up and skedaddled myself out of Sticksville.
The rain was coming down heavier now. It was the kind of rain where it was good to sit inside, curled up under a blanket and sipping a cup of hot tea while watching old movies. No such luck tonight.
My shoes squished as I worked my way toward the back hatch. I hadn’t even made it five steps and my pants were already soaked. I grasped the rear bumper and went down on my knees, aiming my tiny flashlight under the car. Nothing there. Thank God.
I began to straighten, but misjudged. My forehead smacked the corner of the bumper. This time the expletives were even more colorful.
When I was done cussing and finally stood up, I saw Tara gazing at me through the rear window. Had she heard the thunk? I faked a smile. The space between her eyebrows pinched with a questioning look. I held my hands wide, palms up, to indicate I hadn’t found anything.
Tara cracked her window open. “Did you look in the ditch?”
I held a finger up and stepped to the far side of the car, scanning the panels on the passenger side to look for damage. The scratch was still there just in front of the right rear wheel from when I’d clipped the cement barrier post at the bank drive-thru last fall, but otherwise it all looked good. I swept my light back and forth over the ditch in a forty-foot arc. Nothing but muddy runoff, weeds, and a couple of smashed beer cans.
Spinning in my daughter’s direction, I shone the light on myself briefly and shook my head.
“You didn’t look very hard.” She closed the window, then pulled her hood over her eyes and slumped down in the seat again. Satisfied that whatever I’d hit had crawled off into the field relatively unharmed, I returned to the driver’s side.
A long, pitiful whimper rose above the incessant pounding of the rain. I froze with my hand on the door handle. Damn it. I couldn’t leave now. I had hit something. But what on earth would make that kind of noise?
Reluctantly, I went toward the ditch, the beam of my light swinging back and forth over the rain-gorged channel. To my left, a field of low bushy soybeans spread. I looked for paw or hoof prints or breaks in the rows to reveal where an animal might have gone through, had it retreated into the field, but there was no indication of that. I almost turned back when it occurred to me the car had skidded a good hundred yards before coming to a complete stop.
So I walked on. The cool rain drenching me. The world beyond the column of my flashlight as black as coal. The dampness stabbing the misery deep into my bones.
A ragged mound of fur came into view, its inert body sprawled across the shimmering white line at the road’s perimeter. Too small to be a deer. Too big for a raccoon. The fur was a non-descript grayish-brown, the tail a thick plume. Coyote, maybe? If it was, I’d leave it where it lay.
Tentative, I crept forward, ready to bolt back to the car. Closer now. Fifty feet. Thirty. Fifteen …
Its tail flicked, the tip of it plopping into the silty rivulet of the ditch. I stopped dead in my tracks, trying hard not to pee my pants, wishing I’d brought something with me that could serve as a weapon if it suddenly attacked. What if the coyote were diseased or rabid? There was no way I could outrun it. At least with my tire iron, I could’ve beaned it in the head a couple of times, bought myself a few seconds to sprint to the car and dive in.
A front paw twitched. I backed up slowly, keeping the narrow beam of my LED light aimed straight at it like a light saber. If nothing else, if it sprang in my direction, fangs gnashing, I could momentarily blind it. Its tail flicked again. Straining with effort, it stretched its front legs. Gaunt ribs expanded with a single meager breath. A plaintive whine leaked from its maned throat.
I took a step back, and another. Cold water rushed into the mesh of my running shoes as my heel sank in a puddle. My ankle buckled with the sudden motion, and I stumbled sideways, biting back a yelp of pain as I turned to run.
I’d only made one limping step when my daughter’s plea rose above the pounding rain.
“Mom?” Tara jogged past me in her flip flops, the foamy material slapping up water.
Grabbing her by the elbow, I reeled her in. “Tara, what are you doing? Get back in the car — now!”
“But …” She tugged toward the sodden lump of fur, twisting her body as she struggled to free herself from my protective grip. The long strands of her wet hair slapped against her cheek. “You have to help him! You can’t just drive off and leave him to die! Not after you hit him.”
“It’s a coyote, Tara. A wild animal.” Rain filled my mouth. It was coming down in sheets so hard now I could barely see the car from where we stood.
She snatched the flashlight from my hand and wheeled around. “That is a coyote?”
At the sound of her shrill voice, it lifted its head to show a pair of mismatched ears, one semi-erect and one upright, framing a gentle face. A thin white blaze ran between its eyes, one dark, one a pale azure. It stretched its legs, the fur heavy with ticking, groaned, and flopped back over sideways.
A gash on its right shoulder, the width of my palm, glimmered bright with blood.
A dog. I’d hit someone’s dog.