During his law enforcement career, Sheriff Jake Moser has been called to Woodruff Mountain a few times to deal with some rather weird situations. Now, recovering from a bullet wound that should have killed him and fending off his mother’s ravings about the evil that lurks on the mountain, he’s making alternate career plans.
Just as those plans begin to take shape, someone starts kidnapping newborn babies, then returning them unharmed. To make things even more interesting, an irritating adversary from his past has returned to bedevil him in a whole new, delightful way.
After her erratic psychic gift forced her to abandon her home and a promising musical career, Thea Woodruff has spent years trying, unsuccessfully, to atone for the death of Becca Moser, Jake’s sister. Once she has mourned those she’s lost and apologized to those she’s failed, she intends to flee her mountain once again.
Jake would rather she stay to compose a new tune—with him. But their complicated harmony reveals a guilty secret that threatens not only their future, but their lives…
Warning: A temperamental flute-player returns to torment an old flame, but he has other ideas, and the music they make together is combustible—and magical.
Thea caught movement at the edge of her vision and braced herself for another automobile groupie, but it was only a dirty mop head lying on the ground next to the wall. In her exhausted state, she must’ve imagined it. She opened the door and put her bags on the console. Before she put the coffee in the drink holder, she took a long sip of the scalding brew. It wasn’t too bad, but it made her eyes water. She blinked when she saw the mop head move again. Probably a rat or raccoon under there.
Then the mop head lifted its ears and gazed at her with big dark eyes.
She gasped and spilled yet more coffee on her blouse.
A horribly-matted, filthy gray dog that might’ve once been white pushed up on skinny legs and backed against the wall, watching her with suspicion. Then she saw the battered aluminum pan and cracked bowl full of water beside it. Someone was feeding the poor thing, but not really taking ownership.
A stray. Like her.
She almost took a step towards the pitiful creature, but what would she do with a dog?
Thea hadn’t thought much beyond getting home for the wedding, except that she couldn’t stay. Grace had a husband now, a baby on the way and probably planned to fill the house up with children. Daniel was moving into the old Taggart place with his new bride. And she needed to follow her plan to go off and teach music somewhere. There was no room for the prodigal daughter on the mountain, much less a grimy, smelly dog. She looked down at herself and smiled. They were a matched set, weren’t they?
The dirty mop blinked at her as she sipped her coffee.
“What’s your name, pooch?” she asked.
The head cocked sideways and one eye disappeared behind its unkempt hair. The other eye glared at her as the dog tried to sink back into the wall.
She thought of the interstate and the busy highway only yards away and shuddered. The poor thing had probably been left behind by some traveling family or a trucker. At least someone here was feeding it. She wondered how long it had been here, waiting for its owner to return. Her heart clenched. Swallowing hard, she shut the car door, walking back into the truck stop.
The woman who had waited on her before looked up and smiled. “Back for a refill, hon?”
“No, ma’am.” Her voice felt rusty, as if she hadn’t used it in a long time. “I was wondering about the dog out in the parking lot.”
The woman frowned. “Poor thing. Someone dumped her here a couple of months back.”
Months would feel like years to a little one like that. Years waiting for someone to take you home. Years waiting to go home. Thea felt tears threatening at the symmetry.
“No one came for it? No one here wants to take it home?”
“Hey, we tried. She won’t come and no one can catch her. Sly little thing. We figure she’s holding out for her real owner.”
“How do you know it’s female?”
The woman, whose nametag said “Jenny”, leaned over conspiratorially. “The way she pees, but we might be wrong. The boys do that sometimes too.”
Thea mulled it over. Surely Grace had room for another dog. Or maybe Daniel would take her. Someone would.
She reached for her wallet and pulled out one of her cards. “Do you have a pen?” Carefully scratching out her business number, she wrote her cell number on the card in its place and handed it over. “If her owner comes back, you call me.”
Jenny looked at the card and gave her an assessing look. She could imagine how she appeared to the woman—pencil thin skirt, stained silk blouse and expensive heels.
“Oh, hon. You ain’t gonna catch her.”
Thea smiled. I just gave a powerful multinational the one finger salute. I can save an abandoned dog. “Watch me. I’ll have an order of bacon to go, please.”
Jenny shook her head, but went back to the kitchen and brought back a napkin wrapped around several pieces of bacon. “On the house. If you can catch Bailey, I’ll give you a hamburger for her lunch. And one for yours as well.”
“Bailey? After Baileyton?”
The woman nodded. “Works for a girl or a boy, I say.”
The name fit. Taking the bacon, she walked back out front with Jenny close on her heels only to find Bailey gone.
“She’s probably out raiding the garbage. She hides out back there under the skips sometimes. But you’ll never be able to get to her.”
Thea handed Jenny her coffee. “If I do, I want another hot cup to go instead of that second burger. I’m a vegetarian.”
The woman laughed and followed her, carrying the coffee. “This I gotta see.”
Sure enough, they spotted the walking mop sniffing around one of the garbage skips at the back of the building, far enough back to make it impossible to reach her.
Thea got as close to the skip as she could get without going under it, then squatted down, or rather tried to. She finally gave up, hiked up her skirt and knelt on the dirty pavement.
“Here, Bailey girl!” She leaned in under the skip and held out a piece of bacon. “Come on, baby girl,” she cooed.
The dog crouched in the shadows, her ears back and her tail tucked under, growling.
It was a good thing Thea’s nose was stopped up. What little she could smell was bad enough.
“What’s goin’ on back here?” came a man’s voice. Thea jumped, whacking her head on the side of the skip.
“This lady’s trying to get Bailey,” Jenny said.
“Like that’s gonna happen. You’re the one with that red Beemer from Pennsylvania, ain’t ya?”
Thea looked over her shoulder at a man in a white apron who had leaned down to grin at her. He said every single syllable of Penn-syl-va-ni-a, as if it were an unpronounceable contagious disease. And his eyes spent far too much time lingering on her rear end, which was sticking up in the air at the moment.
She felt her temper start to rise. She hated it when people, especially men, tried to tell her what she could and couldn’t do.
“Damn it, Bailey,” she hissed. But those big eyes looked terrified and the dog had cringed even closer to the pavement.
Crap. “Bailey, come here,” she said quietly, but the voice rang off the metal of the skip.
Bailey immediately crawled forward, right onto her lap. Thea slid sideways and heard her skirt rip at the kick pleat as she turned to sit beside the garbage skip with the filthy dog in her arms.
“Well I’ll be,” Jenny exclaimed, clapping her hands.
The man seemed to be reassessing his opinion of Thea. “Shit. You some kinda dog whisperer or somethin’?”
Thea smiled. “Or something.” She looked at Jenny. “Now, how about that hamburger for my friend here?” She broke off little pieces of bacon and fed them to Bailey.
“Oh you bet, honey. And I’ll get you some wipes for your hands and—” Jenny looked Thea over and sniffed, “—for your hands.” She ran back into the restaurant.
“Hell, I’d say both you and the dog need to use the showers, but we don’t let no dogs in there,” the man said. “You need me to help you up, honey?”
Thea smirked at him and put Bailey down at her feet. “Stay.” Bailey waited, motionless, as Thea stood then reached down to scoop her back up.
“That’s weird,” the man said. “Spooky, even.”
Thea was tempted to make him do something embarrassing, to get back at him for the shower comment, but her head was already aching. Besides, she did need a shower. She bit her lip and marched past him around the side of the building with Bailey in her arms.
Lovely. Now she had an audience. They seemed to be the regulars, truckers mostly and some staff, standing outside the doors watching as she carried the dog to her car. One of the waitresses started clapping. Then the rest joined in, until even the grumpy cook cheered the little dog’s rescue.
Smiling at them, Thea lifted Bailey’s paw to wave goodbye to them and opened the car door to slide in, dog and all. She shut it firmly and quickly pushed the button to start the car, struggled to fasten her seat belt under the dog and wondered if she should fasten it over the dog instead. She knew next to nothing about dogs.
Jenny came running out with a sack and a cup, grinning. When Thea rolled down the window, she leaned in. “Here you go. Fresh coffee, a nice hamburger for Bailey and some hashbrowns for you. There’s utensils and hand wipes. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think what both of you’ll need is a long hot soak. And you need some meat on your bones if you’re going to keep up with this ‘un.” She cautiously stroked Bailey’s ears and Thea noticed a glint in her eyes. Jenny was probably the person who’d been feeding the poor thing. “She’d never let me touch her.”
Thea tensed when Bailey turned and licked her cheek. She could not get attached to a dog she had just met. “Do you want to keep her?” she asked.
“Oh, my. No! My Larry would have my hide. I already have four at home. One more and I end up in the pound. No, I think our Bailey’s real owner finally showed up.” She sniffed. “You come back and visit us, baby doll,” she said to Bailey. “I want to see you all cleaned up and pretty.”
“Cleaned up, we can do. Not so sure about pretty,” Thea said, unable to picture Bailey as anything but a mop.
“Here.” Jenny pulled the white towel off her shoulder and handed it to Thea. “Make her a place over there next to you. You don’t wanna drive with her in your lap like that.”
Thea braced her flute case against the passenger door and pushed the junk on the passenger seat around to make a nest. She curled the towel in the seat and sat Bailey on it.
Bailey immediately walked back across and lay on Thea’s lap again.
Jenny gave Bailey’s head one more stroke. “Definitely found her real owner.”
Thea’s smiled. “Thanks, Jenny. You were a good foster mom.”
Jenny nodded and backed away, wiping at her eyes, then waved as Thea drove out of the parking lot.
When she’s not being dragged down the sidewalk by her Jack Russell (if you know Jacks, you understand), Donna June Cooper is belly dancing (shiny!), reading (three books at once), writing (of course!) or complaining about the heat (no matter the temperature). A child of the Appalachians who was transplanted to Texas by her Italian husband, Donna returns to her mountain roots as often as possible, and takes her readers with her in her Books of the Kindling.