© 2018 by Jaime Jo Wright
Published by Bethany House Publishers
11400 Hampshire Avenue South
Bloomington, Minnesota 55438
Bethany House Publishers is a division of
Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ebook edition created 2018
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Scripture quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Jennifer Parker
Author is represented by Books & Such Literary Agency.
Praise for The Reckoning at Gossamer Pond
“Atmospheric and suspenseful, The Reckoning at Gossamer Pond is Jaime Jo Wright’s newest masterpiece. She’s an automatic buy for me, and I love her work. Highly recommended!”
—Colleen Coble, author of The View from Rainshadow Bay and the ROCK HARBOR series
“Brilliantly atmospheric and underscored by a harrowing romance, The Reckoning at Gossamer Pond pairs danger with redemption and features not only two heroines of great agency—separated by time though linked by grace—but one of the most compelling, unlikely and memorable heroes I have met in an age. Equal parts thrilling and beautiful, The Reckoning at Gossamer Pond is a treatise on faith—lost and found—and the Power greater than any human evil coursing through a century.”
—Rachel McMillan, author of Murder at the Flamingo
“Wright’s newest offering is intoxicating and wonderfully authentic. The page; s of this book are delightfully shadowed with mystery that will keep readers poring over the story, but what makes it memorable is the powerful light that burst through every darkened corner in this novel—hope.”
—Joanna Davidson Politano, author of Lady Jane Disappears
“The Reckoning at Gossamer Pond is true to Jaime Jo Wright’s unique style and voice. Multilayered characters who intrigue the reader and a story the threads of which are unpredictable and well woven together make this a must-read for anyone who enjoys suspense.”
—Sarah Varland, author of Mountain Refuge
“Warning! Read The Reckoning at Gossamer Pond at your own risk. Wright grabbed my attention from the first page and never let up. With characters who practically leap off the page and a story line that sizzles with tension, this novel is much more than a follow-up to her brilliant first novel. Go now to your local bookstore and buy this book. You’ll thank me.”
—Kathleen Y’Barbo, author of Pirate Bride
Praise for The House on Foster Hill
“Jaime Jo Wright’s The House on Foster Hill blends the past and present in a gripping mystery that explores faith and the sins of ancestors. . . . Deep emotional struggles are the backbone of the novel and make the corresponding mystery even more engaging. With sharp dialogue and plenty of scares, this is a gripping tale that never loses sight of the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Headed by two strong female protagonists, Wright’s debut is a lushly detailed time-slip novel that transitions seamlessly between past and present, leading to the revelation of some surprising family secrets that someone would kill to protect. Readers who enjoy Colleen Coble and Dani Pettrey will be intrigued by this suspenseful mystery.”
“Jaime Jo Wright is an amazing storyteller who had me on the edge of my seat, turning pages and reading as fast as I could to get to the end of the book! The House on Foster Hill is a masterfully told story with layers and layers of mystery and intrigue, with a little romance thrown in for good measure. The adventure takes the reader back and forth through time, weaving the content like a tapestry—revealing a little bit more of the design with each chapter until the story is complete. I’ll be excited to read more from this author.”
—Tracie Peterson, author of the GOLDEN GATE SECRETS series
“A mystery from over a hundred years ago intertwines with one from the present in this spellbinding tale by Jaime Jo Wright. Rich characterization and intricate plotting combine to make this novel unputdownable. This one will fly off the shelves as readers discover the very talented Wright. Highly recommended!”
—Colleen Coble, author of The View from Rainshadow Bay
“Riveting! With its dual story line connected by a single house and the women it touched, Jaime Jo Wright delivers double the suspense, double the romance, and double the reasons to keep turning the pages far into the night. An outstanding novel from an author to watch.”
—Jocelyn Green, author of The Mark of the King
It’s not every mother who would let her daughter trade in house chores for book reading, cooking lessons for conjuring up ways to kidnap people, mowing the lawn in exchange for pretending to escape imminent death, and piano lessons for escapades with Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Anne Shirley.
Who’s the smart one in the family, I ask?
All my love.
Questions for Discussion
About the Author
Thy soul shall find itself alone
’Mid dark thoughts of the gray tombstone—
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.
Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness—for then
The spirits of the dead who stood
In life before thee are again. . . .
Edgar Allan Poe, “Spirits of the Dead”
GOSSAMER GROVE, WISCONSIN
Libby Sheffield had never stopped to wonder what she would take specific note of if she ever stumbled upon a dead body. Still, she hadn’t expected to pause in consideration of the black, patent leather shoes, the finely cut wool trousers, or the shirtsleeves cuffed at the man’s wrists with cuff links boasting a scrolled G for Greenwood, his last name. Taking note of a corpse’s clothing was certainly not important, but maybe it was merely a distraction to deter her from letting loose the longest scream she’d ever let scrape from her throat. The man’s feet dangled in the air, any thrashing having long since ceased. His face . . . Libby looked away. His face wasn’t one she ever wished to see again, though it was more likely than not permanently grafted into her vault of memories.
Movement beside her ripped Libby from her subconscious attempt to manage the repulsive shock that rendered her limbs stiff and her mouth open in horror.
Calvin shuffled forward, his shoes clomping on the wide beam floors of the Greenwood carriage house. He snatched the wooden stool that had been kicked out from beneath the man. Calvin struggled to right it, pushing up against the man’s unbending legs as if positioning his feet on the top would somehow encourage the body to breathe again.
“Calvin . . .” Libby’s attempt to put a stop to her friend’s efforts halted as she gagged. She clapped her hand over her mouth and spun on her heel, staring out at the morning light that stretched across the Greenwood driveway. The shaft of sunlight seemed to lead a path straight to the carriage house doors where it collided with a darkness that could only be described as evil. The open carriage doors had been what beckoned her inside to begin with, rather than knocking on the house’s front door across the drive.
“It’s not working, Lollie.” Calvin sounded out of breath as he called her by his nickname for her. His desperate tone made Libby summon old remnants of gumption she had long kept dormant.
Libby turned and skimmed the face of Deacon Harrison Greenwood in all his strangled condition, the rope hoisted over a rafter beam and cutting into his neck. She shuddered and fixed her eyes on Calvin, who still hugged the dead man’s legs.
“It’s too late.” Her words echoed through the wooden structure. “Calvin, let him go.”
The boy—rather, the man—Libby had long called her best friend gave her a lengthy, searching stare. The kind he so often did when assessing how serious she was, the truth behind her statement, and how to decipher her intent. Libby despised how the town of Gossamer Grove had labeled Calvin as a simpleton. He was more empathetic and intuitive than other adults who were considered “functional.” She cursed Calvin’s critics many a time in the secret places of her mind. But now she grieved that Calvin could not process the difference between a man fighting for his life and a man whose face was gray and swollen in suffocated death.
“Calvin!” Libby’s voice was sharp but not stern. Panic made her hands tremble, and it welled inside her until her own throat tightened, as if asphyxiating by sheer empathy for the very stiff, very dead Deacon Greenwood.
“We need to get help.” Libby pointed toward the house just across the circular drive, its yellow siding cheery in the dawn.
“But you said he’s dead.” Calvin had released the deacon and now frowned at her.
“Yes, but . . .” Libby couldn’t help but wave her hands, flustered. It wasn’t supposed to have actually happened! The obituary in her pocket—the one foretelling Deacon Greenwood’s death like some horrid omen—she’d thought it must have been a prank. “Please, Calvin.” She started for the Greenwood house, knowing he would follow. He always did.
She was at the doorstep far sooner than she was prepared. It was seven-thirty in the morning and not a time for callers—certainly not for this type of call.
Her chest rose and fell, the soft gray silk of her morning dress ruffling as the breeze picked up and brushed her body with a late spring chill.
“Are you gonna knock, Lollie?”
She licked her lips and swallowed, almost imagining constraints around her throat.
Before she could stop him, Calvin’s knuckles rapped on the door.
What could she say when the door was answered?
Good morning, Mrs. Greenwood. I received a strange missive this dawn when I arrived at the paper. An obituary for your husband. I thought perhaps it was a hoax, but I’m afraid to tell you he is most definitely hanging from the rafters in your carriage house.
That wouldn’t do.
Libby tried to reconstruct her verbiage.
Mrs. Greenwood, I’m so terribly sorry to tell you this, but your husband isn’t well. He’s—
“Dead!” Libby half shouted as the door opened, and the questioning raised brow of Elijah Greenwood, Deacon Greenwood’s son, greeted her.
“Libby Sheffield, what in the name of all that’s holy—?” Elijah stepped out and closed the door firmly behind him, as if to spare his family from her horrible communication skills and the utter impropriety of her early morning call.
Elijah’s questioning stare bounced between Libby and Calvin. He would be used to seeing them together, for Calvin was often her shadow. He would also be used to her inability to compose coherent thoughts when under duress, and even worse, anytime he was present. It didn’t serve her well now. This was not a moment to be consumed by the overwhelming emotions she combatted anytime Elijah was within two feet of her.
Calvin shifted from foot to foot, tongue-tied, as usual, in the presence of the enigmatically serious visage of Elijah Greenwood.
Libby cast her friend a desperate look, but Calvin had taken to wringing his hands and humming under his breath.
She lifted her eyes to meet Elijah’s. His brows had risen in annoyance, and he tilted his head as he crossed his arms over his chest—his marvelously broad chest that Libby had oft-imagined hiding herself against.
“Libby, this isn’t amusing. Why are you here at the break of dawn?”
Libby stared into Elijah’s brooding eyes. How was she to tell him that his father was in the carriage house, dead? History was a horrid repeat offender. She was always the storm to Elijah’s serenity. She had been since she and Calvin were fifteen, and Elijah the noncompliant participant to her worst and darkest memory of all.
She shook her head. A hapless attempt to steady her thoughts and nerves.
“There was an obituary, and when I read it, I thought it best . . . my father hasn’t been to the newspaper office this morning, so I had to open it, and I—most people don’t submit obituaries before they die—maybe some do. No. No, I don’t think one would, would you? Submit an obituary before you died?”
“Libby!” Elijah’s bark brought her stumbling babble to a swift halt.
Libby widened her eyes and reached for Calvin. Someone to ground her, to make her think sensibly. But all she could see in her mind’s eye was the lifeless face of Deacon Greenwood.
Elijah shook his head, his arms still crossed, his expression one of austerity. “I’m not amused. Slow down, gather your wits, and tell me what on God’s green earth has landed you on our doorstep before I’ve even had my breakfast.”
Libby swallowed hard, fished in her pocket, and rammed the obituary against Elijah’s chest. That was a mistake. The heat from his body warmed through the paper and reached her gloveless palm. Libby dropped her hand, the paper fluttering toward the ground. Elijah snatched it from the air.
Calvin stepped closer to her, and Libby looped her arm around his. Elijah skimmed the words on the page, his countenance shifting from confused to outright fury. He balled the paper in his palm.
“Is this a joke?” he demanded.
Libby sputtered, “That’s what I believed.” Tears clogged her throat. “That’s why I came so early, to check on your father, but—” She pointed toward the carriage house.
Elijah studied her face, then followed the direction of her pointing finger, and his face paled. His arm swung out, shoving her and Calvin aside. He took the stairs in a leap and sprinted across the yard. Every footstep he took was in cadence with the pounding of Libby’s heart. A pounding she could hear in her ears, mocking the grim silence of the body that hung just yards away. A life snuffed out while the world slept, immune to the wickedness of death that haunted the grounds of Gossamer Grove.
GOSSAMER GROVE, WISCONSIN
If life could be a mathematical sum, Annalise would maybe understand her own story. But as it was, she could consider the past and segment her life into chaotic, misplaced chapters that ended up like a writer’s manuscript dropped into a jumble on the floor—without page numbers to put it back into order.
Annalise removed her black-framed glasses and tossed them onto her desk. Her very organized desk. She looked across it at the police-uniformed frame of Brent Drury and his straight shoulders as he lowered himself onto a chair. He had grown a bit paunchy around the middle since their days in high school when he was captain of the football team alongside . . .
It didn’t matter. Annalise took a deep breath, inhaling the strong scent of coffee that wafted from the shop just outside her office door. But her breath was shaky, and it didn’t fill her lungs as she’d intended. Life had just handed her another confusing punch in the gut. One would think she’d be used to it by now. Apparently not.
“I don’t understand.” Crud, if her voice wasn’t shaking too.
Eugene Hayes was dead.
Annalise shouldn’t care. She had no reason to, except . . . “What do you mean, he had a picture of me in his hand?”
She’d never even met the recluse, because he was, after all, a recluse.
Brent’s mouth was set in a tight line. Annalise could tell he was disassociating himself from her to remain factual.
“Just that. He was dead with a picture of you in his hand,” Brent affirmed. “And, the old man was a hoarder. I mean, it’s going to take a hazmat crew to clean up the place. But he had a desk with pictures of you on it.” He reached into his uniform coat and pulled out his cellphone. Thumbing through the apps, he turned his phone to Annalise. “Take a look.”
Annalise took the phone and stared in dumbfounded fascination. The run-down trailer aside, it was the meticulously lined up series of old, candid photographs of her that made her stomach clench. Her dance recital as a ten-year-old, her school picture when she was fourteen, with those awful braces clamped onto her teeth—was the man some kind of creeper?
Annalise stretched the photo larger with her thumb and index finger. She tensed. A quick glance at Brent told her he was studying her reaction.
Maybe not a creeper so much as a stalker!
She stared at the picture she’d zoomed in on and then half tossed the phone back at Brent. The photograph, taken when she was a senior in high school, had edges that were bent and worn. Annalise was about twenty pounds lighter at the time. Her expression looked vibrant—unlike now when her smile was pasted on like a plastic Barbie doll’s. Like it had been most days since she was eighteen. When she became an adult for reasons other than the legal age.
“Did you know Mr. Hayes?” Brent asked, taking his phone back.
“Sure. Not personally, but everyone in Gossamer Grove knows of Eugene Hayes. Especially after Tyler’s not-so-nice article in the paper about the old man owing back taxes and the town giving him eviction notices.” Annalise hid her hands under the desk. They were shaking. She clasped her fingers together.
“But, why would he have pictures of you, Annalise?”
“How would I know?” Her voice pitched an octave higher, and Annalise focused on bringing it back down in tone. The sounds of coffee shop patrons—her patrons—filtered through her office door, along with the frothing sound from the steamer. She could use a straight-up espresso right about now.
“I know you’re upset, but I have to show you something else.” Brent directed his attention back to his phone.
No, not a picture of the body.
“Here.” Brent turned the phone so that Annalise could see. She expelled a carefully controlled breath of relief at a sheaf of papers.
“What are they?”
“Old documents. All from Gossamer Grove. All from the turn of the century.”
Annalise gave Brent a blank look. “So?”
She eyed the phone again as Brent swiped to the next photo. A picture of a yellowed pamphlet with huge black-inked letters, announcing Corbin Bros. Come to Faith Revival Meeting, and a 1907 obituary for a Harrison Greenwood.
Irony had a sharp and cutting edge. It went all metaphorically Jack the Ripper on her time and time again, and it hadn’t failed this time. If she could pay money to forget the Greenwood name, Annalise would mortgage her entire life.
She raised her eyes to Brent’s and chose—very specifically chose—to ignore the obituary and the fact it was next to her photograph. Over a hundred years separated them. Chalk it up to awful coincidence.
“Okay, so what does this mean? I don’t get”—she waved her hand toward his phone—“any of this.” Especially how Eugene Hayes came to possess a picture of eighteen-year-old her, taken at a campfire at Garrett Greenwood’s the night—
“You have no idea how a picture of you, an obituary, and the old revival meetings might be related?”
“Related? Hardly. They aren’t related.” Annalise bit back her incredulous defense. She lowered her voice. “Listen, I don’t know why he had those photos of me, and I don’t want to even consider why my pictures were next to an obituary of a Gossamer Grove Greenwood!”
Greenwood. The name hung over her like a demon shadow. The black ghostly kind that dodged and dipped and mocked her just when she thought she had moved on. Annalise couldn’t afford to have anyone, even a hermit, digging into her past. She’d worked so hard to create a new life for herself, to be a person the town could trust, to become a benefactress who would take measures to look after people like Eugene Hayes instead of letting them become lost in a town that didn’t care. It was also why she kept most people at arm’s length. She was sociable and friendly, even politically inclined, but she didn’t let people in.
Well, not most people.
Annalise met Brent’s eyes. He knew. He would never tell, but he knew. And it was the knowing she was most afraid of. Those secrets never went away.
Obituaries were the final diary page of life lived, whether pleasant or tragic, full or barren. It was an account of a rather interesting life, or worse, a dramatic end. But never were they printed before the person died. Until now.
Libby fell into the chair behind her father’s desk at his newspaper. Her entire body trembled. The pandemonium of the morning was wrought with grief, and she knew she’d never, never forget the keening wail from Mrs. Greenwood’s lips when Elijah broke the news to his mother. Libby would never forget the way Elijah looked at her, as if she were the one who had visited doom on his father. But, she’d not hung the man! No. The authorities had come at the beckoning call from the Greenwoods’ telephone—they were rich enough to have one—and the police determined quickly that Deacon Greenwood had taken his own life.
In the chaos of Deacon Greenwood being cut from his noose and laid in the back of the coroner’s wagon, to the clucking of Dr. Penchan’s tongue as he offered a consoling handshake to Elijah, Libby had seen Elijah watching her. Her and Calvin. She could read his thoughts in his eyes. She was to blame. As she always had been before.
Now Libby leaned forward and grappled for a piece of paper, positioning it in the typewriter in front of her and scrolling it through the feeder. She snatched her father’s horrid notes, attempting to bring some semblance of calm into her trembling hands and body. News. A story. Anything but the horridness of the morning.
The Corbin brothers’ revival service has brought another round of baptisms. Eight souls were delivered and received a watery covering at the Gossamer Pond baptism service last night. Following the event, Jedidiah Corbin led the attendees in a rousing sermon with such impassioned verbiage, it resulted in several of the husbands hurrying their wives home. Errant boys lit cannon crackers, and a small fire at the edge of the pond was fast put out by quick-thinking folk.
Libby ceased her nervous typing. The clack-clack of the keys grated on every raw nerve that was well awakened by death’s striking hand. Now this? The past week, little tidbits of news about the Corbin brothers had made their way into the paper, and the energy surrounding their revivalist meetings fell between inspiring conversion and inspiring violence.
She yanked the paper from the typewriter, the machine protesting its release of the page as if to argue.
“Yes, well, I want to go back to yesterday too!” Libby muttered at the typewriter. Yesterday, when all she had to do was hide from her memories, avoid her father and his newspaper partner, and pretend her mother wasn’t piously requesting Libby attend the missionary tea tomorrow afternoon.
Libby leaned her elbows on the desk, drawing in deep, calming breaths. The police were sure to come and question her over the morning’s events. She couldn’t even find comfort now in boring town news. The Corbin brothers just had to keep stirring the pot, and that boded no good for anyone. Trouble was running rampant in Gossamer Grove. The town, cloaked in the image of quaint Midwestern charm and embraced with whispers of grace and charity, had been awakened to darker things. All that Gossamer Grove had seemed to be floated away like a cobweb on a breeze.
Libby squelched a yelp as her father slapped down another one of his handwritten articles on the desk. The pencil she was fiddling with flew through the air and clattered onto the floor. All the sounds of the newspaper returned to her, jolting her from her thoughts. The pulleys from the pressroom whooshed with last-minute copies, and through the large windows on either side of the office door, Libby caught a glimpse of a newsboy running down the hall, hoisting a bag of morning news over his shoulder.
“Deacon Greenwood is dead,” her father, Mitch Sheffield, announced. “They found him early this morning hanging from the rafters in their carriage house.”
She hadn’t the ability to look shocked. She was numb now. What her father thought of as fresh news, to Libby, was already well over two hours old. She sucked in a breath, but she knew better than to interrupt her father, who had declared at her birth that he wouldn’t bear the endearment of “Father” or “Papa,” but instead taught her to refer to him by his first name.
Mitch waved his hand in the air. “He kicked a stool out from beneath himself. God knows there must be easier ways to take one’s life!”
A sharp intake of breath from Paul Darrow, Mitch’s newspaper partner, brought Mitch’s exclamation to a halt. Paul was frozen in the doorway of the office, his small stature magnified by his sour expression. Black sleeves ballooned around his forearms and over his elbows, covering his white shirt to avoid ink transfer. Wispy hair waved on the top of the man’s balding head.
“You will not print that.” The words hissed between his teeth. He jammed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose with his index finger.
Libby was cold, down to the tips of her toes. There was so much more than either Paul or Mitch understood.
“Well, I—” she began.
“I will print the news,” Mitch interrupted and rose to full height, which dwarfed Paul and made him look a bit like a puffed-up rooster trying to hide his scrawny frame.
Paul dared a step into the office. The office that had once been his before Mitch bailed him out of financial ruin and took over sixty percent of the paper. Paul really had no say anymore, although he liked to think he did.
“It’s disrespectful to Deacon Greenwood’s name and his family. We must handle this with deference to their grief and the church’s affections.” Paul’s argument had trivial effect.
“We print news, Darrow!” Mitch pointed to his pile of handwritten notes in front of Libby. “Whether that’s Deacon Greenwood’s death or the Corbin brothers shouting hellfire and damnation at the people from their pulpit. Gossamer Grove is festering with news, and you want to print a report on the Martha Washington Ladies’ Society spring fundraiser?”
“I never said—” Paul’s bluster was interrupted by an equally affronted Mitch.
“Please, may I—” Libby tried again.
Mitch cut her off with a blustering wave of his hand, completely silencing her.
“The Corbins already have the town splitting in half. Eight more baptisms last night. Either it’s authentic religion or fear of being condemned. Deacon Greenwood probably thought better of it and decided it would be easier to face God himself than the Corbin brothers.”
“That’s disgraceful! You’re stirring up trouble like you always do. Dissension.” Paul glowered. “This paper was never meant to publish slander.”
“Hah!” Mitch sniffed.
Libby drew in a shuddering breath. If she didn’t announce that she’d been the one to discover Deacon Greenwood, then she would have—well, never mind. She wasn’t allowed to express what she would have to pay, but she’d pay it nonetheless.
“There was an obituary delivered this morning.” Her interjection received an exasperated look from her father. Obituaries weren’t notable news in his definition.
Mitch waved her off again, choosing instead to lambaste his partner who, for all sakes and purposes, was more of an enemy. “Did you hear about the Presbyterian church? Their windows were broken last night by a band of boys, after which they threw in a skunk for good measure.”
Paul’s mouth tightened into a straight line. “I will repeat myself for your hardheaded idiocy. The Daily Democrat was never meant to print melodramatic gossip.”
Mitch laughed and tugged the lapels of his jacket. “It’s not gossip when it’s the truth.”
Paul’s eyes narrowed, and he sniffed. “You feed off others’ hardships.”
“Regardless,” Mitch said, his tone indicating he meant to bring a conclusion to the erratic argument, “I do believe the town will notice when the deacon doesn’t show up for closing prayers at the upcoming tent meeting Friday night. Whatever his reasons, he’s dead.”
“Fine,” Paul snapped. “But you mustn’t print the gory details.”
Mitch curled his lip, sarcasm dripping from his words. “I’ll leave out the part of him being stiff as a board.” He shoved past Paul, but paused in the doorway and speared Libby with a well-placed look that stated he was both her employer and her father.
Most days, she hated that equation.
“Libby, see that those articles are edited and transcribed so they go to press immediately. Word for word.”
She gave a short nod, and Mitch charged from the room.
Heavens. What a tragic mess today was. Made more horrid by the fact that every time she blinked, Libby saw Deacon Greenwood’s dead face.
“Excuse me.” She cleared her throat. “Paul?”
“Yes?” He spun his attention toward her. The man practically pecked her eyes out with his glare.
Libby stared at him. He was a daunting crank of a man.
“What is it, Miss Sheffield?”
Yes. All right. Libby summoned courage. Paul wasn’t Elijah, nor was he doomed to die by premature obituary. She mustered her wits and launched herself into the conversation. “There was an obituary left here this morning. I’m not certain when it was slipped into the mail slot, but when I arrived here at six-thirty, I almost stepped on the envelope.”
“Fine.” Paul waved his hand in dismissal. “It’s too late to print in today’s paper. We’ll set it for press tonight.”
“No, but that’s just it!” Curse these men who wouldn’t let her finish a cohesive thought. Libby pushed against the desk, rising so her dress floated around her ankles and her height gave her a bit of advantage over the shorter newspaperman. “The obituary was for Deacon Greenwood.”
Paul paused, as if unsure how to calculate the information and reach a conclusion.
Libby hurried on. “I just saw Deacon Greenwood last evening, at dinner at the Fairfield Boardinghouse. He was very much alive.” She had Paul’s full attention now. “I determined it had to be a wicked joke. I wanted to make sure of Deacon Greenwood’s welfare, so I left the paper after I found the obit this morning. Calvin was outside and he accompanied me.”
Paul’s eyebrow raised and he sagged against the doorjamb. Libby could see he was reaching the correct deduction.
“Are you telling me it was you who discovered Deacon Greenwood?”
Libby nodded, the vision flooding her memory like a nightmare.
Paul rammed his spectacles up his nose and took a step forward. “You found him?” he repeated, as if she’d been bumbling in conversation again and confused him.
“Yes.” Libby detested the watery tone to her voice, but she couldn’t help it. She’d stood there while they cut him down too. Watched as Elijah had delivered a swift, grief-stricken kick against the wooden stool his father had once stood on, shattering it against the wall.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Paul wasn’t empathetic, but more offended that she’d for some reason kept so mum while the two men sparred and wouldn’t let her get a word in edgewise.
Libby cleared her throat. “This morning was dreadful. I never truly expected to find him dead. But the obituary . . .” She waited, hoping Paul would put two and two together. When he looked back at her as if waiting, she plunged ahead. “I arrived at the paper at six-thirty this morning.”
“You already stated that,” Paul snapped.
Libby nodded. “I was reading Deacon Greenwood’s obituary before I discovered him dead. Before anyone discovered him dead.”
They stared at each other. Color leaked from Paul’s face, and he shook his head. “There has to be an explanation. Perhaps the deacon left it himself.”
“But why?” Libby raised a brow.
“Those intent on taking their own life—” Paul paused and cleared his throat—“often leave a . . . note.”
Libby nodded. She’d heard of that before, although most didn’t speak of such things. There were so many emotions in the taking of one’s life. Judgment, sorrow, a lack of closure . . . so many questions. But no. No. This wasn’t a note of farewell or an explanation from one intent on leaving this world.
“It was an obituary,” Libby insisted. “I gave it to Elijah, and I’m not entirely sure what happened to it.”
But she’d memorized it. Word for word, it was burned into her mind. It was what words did to Libby. They tattooed themselves in her brain.
“Harrison Frederick Greenwood,” she recited for Paul. “Born March tenth, 1853, passed away this the seventh of May, 1907. No more shall his secrets wound. No more shall his secrets shame.
“Thy soul shall find itself alone
“’Mid dark thoughts of the gray tombstone—
“Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
“Into thine hour of secrecy.”
A fateful sensation filled the room, like one might feel while passing through a cemetery at midnight. Thy soul shall find itself alone. That moment, right before death came, when a soul was truly suspended.
“That last bit is Poe. Edgar Allan Poe.” Paul squeezed the bridge of his nose. “The darkest form of funeral verse.”
“What do I do?” Libby whispered. Poe. She’d read the morbid poet before, but in the horrors of the morning, she’d yet to credit him with some of the obituary’s words.
“Nothing.” Paul’s voice dropped to a whisper, hissed between clenched teeth. His eyes drove into hers with authority. “You do absolutely nothing. The obituary doesn’t exist anymore unless Elijah Greenwood has secured it himself. It does no one any good to revisit it.”
“But,” Libby argued, “if it was written and delivered here prior to Deacon Greenwood being discovered, doesn’t it stand to reason that perhaps the deacon’s death was—” Good gracious. She was going to say it aloud. “That his death was premeditated?”
“You’ve no evidence of that.” Paul stared at her, and she couldn’t read the expression in his eyes. “Let the medical examination speak for the truth of what happened. As for this obituary? Do nothing.” Paul raised a finger as if he were going to say more, but instead he spun on his heel and strode from the room, slamming the door behind him.
Libby stared after him. The day was barely in its infancy and yet Gossamer Grove was exploding into turmoil. Now she must add secrecy to the trouble? What if the police inquired—and they would—why she was at the Greenwood home in the wee hours of the morning with Calvin? She couldn’t very well lie. Well, she could try, but if she could barely spit out the truth coherently, how could she deceive with finesse? No, she’d have to tell them about the obituary. Of course, they would want to see it, and she didn’t have it anymore. So then, Libby knew before it even happened, the authorities would wave her away as they often did. The daughter of the sensation-seeking newspaperman. She would be Mitch’s pawn to create a story where there really wasn’t one. The truth, they would determine—unless Dr. Penchan found evidence to the contrary—was simple: Deacon Harrison Greenwood was a disturbed man whose secrets drove him to dark results.
Libby crossed her arms on the desk as she sank onto the chair. She laid her forehead on her arms and drew in a trembling breath. “Tell no one,” Paul said. It wouldn’t matter. Even if she told the truth, no one would believe her. Besides, she was good at keeping secrets. She had kept them for years. It’s what people in Gossamer Grove did.
The image of Eugene Hayes’s body lying cold in his trailer was vivid in Annalise’s mind. Her imagination sometimes worked overtime, and while it often resulted in great ideas, it could also put her in places she preferred not to go. Sights, sounds, feelings—all of it paraded through her conscious mind with a vividness that rivaled a full-color dream. It was better to push it all away until she could mentally process and categorize it later.
Annalise steamed the milk for a customer’s latte, the froth growing. Once finished, she pulled the stainless-steel pitcher from the steamer and poured the milk into the paper cup. The dairy swirled with the espresso. She hated pitying anyone, even the homeless. It seemed disrespectful. But, Eugene Hayes wasn’t homeless, although he was apparently one step above it. The man probably had to drink Folgers, or worse, instant coffee.
She blinked several times to refocus on the latte. She needed to stop obsessing over the dead man, yet she couldn’t forget the picture Brent had shown her. Or rather, the picture of a picture. A photograph of a Polaroid taken of Eugene Hayes. His wrinkled face, a bandanna around his head, Willie Nelson style, gray hair spiking out in random directions on his head, and skinny, bare arms with sagging tattoos. He looked like a gaunt version of a biker, or a Vietnam vet, or maybe both.
“Here you go.” She handed the latte to the guest.
He gave her his credit card and mumbled with a smile, “Double charge me.”
Annalise grinned, trying to shake herself out of her muddied thoughts and into the present.
“You got it. Thank you so much!”
She added an extra charge to the card and took comfort that word was spreading fast in Gossamer Grove. Her plan to raise awareness for the food pantry adjacent to the coffee shop and hopefully, sooner rather than later, open a shelter, was growing in popularity. When she’d started the pantry a few years before, there’d been suspicion and even a reticence from the public to patronize her coffee shop, where the majority of the profits went to support the pantry. Maybe now the community liked it because it was an uncomplicated way to help the needy without getting their hands dirty. But, Annalise preferred to think—hope, really—that it was because Gossamer Grove had people who genuinely cared.
Two palms rested gently on the rustic cherrywood counter. Annalise edged out of the way of her hired barista, who took the next customer. She recognized the hands, the strawberry-red nail polish, and the waft of sugary-sweet raspberry perfume.
“Hello, love.” The understanding voice of her closest friend, Christen, flooded her precarious peace with a bit of relief in the mixing bowl of the morning. Christen had a way of picking up people like someone adopted a stray puppy.
“Have you heard, then?” Christen’s green eyes were concerned. The normal smile missing behind her glasses.
Annalise bit her tongue. Brent had told her not to talk about Eugene Hayes to anyone. But he had to know his own wife, Annalise’s best—only—friend, would be the first person she wanted to confide in. Still, Annalise followed rules—especially ones laid down by the police—so the no-talkee rule would be inclusive of Christen too. This was going to be difficult.
“Annalise?” Christen craned her neck, trying to recapture Annalise’s attention.
Annalise twisted around, turning her back to her friend. She needed coffee.
Yes. Make the coffee. Alllll the coffee.
Annalise made herself busy tamping grounds into the espresso pod.
“You’re overthinking it, I can see that already.” Christen’s intuitive words ricocheted off Annalise’s back.
Good grief. Did Christen actually know about Eugene Hayes? Annalise hooked the espresso into the machine and turned the switch.
“I’m not leaving until you talk to me.” Christen’s voice held just the right mix of sternness and care.
Fine. Annalise faced her friend as espresso drained into her mug. She heaved a huge sigh, which earned her an extra understanding scrunch of Christen’s nose. Empathy. It was Christen’s strong point.
Christen brushed blond bangs from over her right eye. Her assessment of Annalise was like standing in front of an X-ray machine that read thoughts. Annalise winced. Brent had to know that Christen’s ability to draw her out of her introverted self was akin to a hypnotherapist. Minus the hypnosis. She was that good.
“Well?” Christen blinked, her ridiculously long eyelashes brushing the lenses in her cobalt-blue frames.
“I can’t say anything.”
Remain mum. Mumsie’s the word.
Annalise retrieved her espresso, and instead of proceeding to steam milk and make herself a latte, she sucked down the double shot, letting it burn its scalding path down her throat.
Choking, Annalise snatched a dish towel and wiped a renegade dribble from her chin.
“Wow.” Christen eyed her. “You really are upset. What are you going to do?”
“There’s nothing to do.” Annalise shrugged, tossing the dirty dish towel into a cloth basket beneath the counter.
“Ooooookay.” Christen pursed her lips, and her expression told Annalise she was not going to get away with a simple dismissal.
“Look,” Annalise tried again. Although, she could feel herself caving as Christen perused her with her probing gaze. “It wasn’t my fault the man died, and I don’t know why he had pictures of me all over his desk.” She choked and stopped. She needed to zip it.
“What are you talking about?” Christen drew back, a perplexed raising of the eyebrows to complete her bewildered look.
They stared at each other. Annalise had that growing realization they were talking about two completely different things.
“What are you talking about?” Today was a day from the Twilight Zone if ever there was one.
Christen tilted her head and widened her eyes. “Garrett? Garrett Greenwood?”
A dull thud in the pit of Annalise’s stomach told her it was more than the hastily downed espresso that was going to give her heartburn.
“What about him?” Annalise eyed Christen cautiously.
“Garrett Greenwood moved back to Gossamer Grove.” Christen’s look of disbelief told Annalise she probably should have known this already. Somehow.
The churning in her stomach worsened.
Christen cleared her throat. “You know, Doug Larson put in a bid to the town for the property you just petitioned the board for. Well, apparently, Doug is using Garrett as his ace up his sleeve. He hired Garrett to design and endorse a climbing gym and zip-line course.”
Annalise sagged against the counter. Of course. The town would far prefer Doug Larson’s proposed wilderness center and resort over her proposed homeless shelter. But Garrett? That was a no-brainer win for Larson right there.
Annalise motioned for Christen to follow, and she rounded the counter and moved into her office. She sagged against her desk as Christen flopped into one of the chairs. She stared up at Annalise.
“I’m sorry.” Christen screwed up her face into an empathetic grimace.
Annalise crossed her arms over her chest. Jaded. She was becoming more and more jaded as she grew older. Growing bitter wasn’t something she’d ever considered for herself. It wasn’t attractive, nor was it conducive to health and happiness. Worst of all, it made Annalise more and more like her mother, whom she’d separated from years ago for that very reason. Bitterness poisoned even the sweetest cup and turned it rancid.
Still, she couldn’t lie and say it was all right. It was far from all right. Garrett Greenwood was a professional rock climber. Bringing him back to Gossamer Grove to design and endorse a wilderness center was akin to bringing George Clooney to town to endorse a home movie. Annalise saw her dreams of championing the town’s impoverished winging its way out the window and over the trees where Garrett would be constructing a zip line. Being waterboarded would leave her with more breath than she had now. The doors of fate had opened and dumped all the what-goes-around-comes-arounds on top of her head in the same day.
“Hey?” Christen’s concerned voice filled the office. “There’s still hope, you know. Nicole might be the mayor, but she’s not stupid. She’ll look at all sides, even if Garrett has a vested interest in it and he’s her brother.”
Annalise gave a weak nod. But really, it was more than that. So much more. It was Garrett. It’d always been Garrett.
“There’s one more thing.” Christen reached out and patted the chair next to her. “You’ll probably want to sit down for this.”
Annalise stared at her, then spun and sank into the chair. “This can’t be good.” Steady. Deep breaths.
“Well, it’s not the worst thing, I guess.” Christen scrunched her face, her glasses hitting her eyebrows. “If you can get past the wilderness center and appreciate the muscles, your new neighbor Garrett will definitely be the best-looking garden ornament outside your house this summer.”
Christen was trying to be funny, but she didn’t know. Only Brent did, and Annalise’s parents whose lifestyle of the rich and retired in Scottsdale, Arizona, kept them blessedly out of Annalise’s life. But this?
The sick sensation Annalise was already fighting coiled her stomach into an even tighter, more assertive knot. “My next-door neighbor?”
The image of the For Sale sign in the yard of the modest house next door to her historical Victorian two-story flooded her mind.
Please, God, please. One break in life, that’s all she was asking. Just one.
But the expression on Christen’s face made it all nightmarishly clear: God had no intention of letting Annalise catch a break. It was penance, really. Now she would have to pay it in full . . . with interest.
Everything in her life was planned meticulously. Maybe not the little details—she wasn’t OCD, or maybe she was?—but for certain, the major events. Creating this entire homeless shelter proposal, for example, came after a successful term in office by Nicole Greenwood, but with a sad lack of concern toward the underprivileged in Gossamer Grove. They needed a voice, although Nicole was more preoccupied with tourism in the quaint vintage town that had been ranked as one of the top ten best littlest places to visit. The Biggest-Hearted Small Town in the Midwest.
So Annalise did what she did best. She mapped it out. The needs, the budget, the property—unused by the town—and the business sense and attention to detail it took to launch such a project. Opening their eyes to a bigger picture than just their happy little homes was an important initiative.
But she hadn’t mapped out this.
The red door stared back at her with two rectangular glass windowpanes for eyes. Garrett was never supposed to come home. It’d been twelve years, and he’d kept far away from Gossamer Grove. Until now. No contingency plan for his reappearance had been made.
Rapping the brass door knocker against its base, Annalise waited. Her stomach was a puddle of nerves, and if she didn’t have one made of steel, she’d be retching in the bushes right now.
A muffled “Door’s open” greeted her ears. A familiar voice, mature but with the same casual tone.
Annalise drew in a deep breath and blew it out, lifting stray copper hairs from her forehead. They fell over her eyes, and she brushed them back. The doorknob turned as she twisted it. It really didn’t matter how long she tried to plan for this; their first face-to-face meeting since high school wasn’t something she could plan for.
She was greeted with the full-on view of two muscled legs in ratty khaki shorts and a tapered bare back inked with a shoulder tattoo of Chinese symbols that stretched around and down to his corded right bicep. Garrett’s body descended as he lowered it from a pull-up, his hands gripping a hang board mounted over a doorframe. It was a molded rectangular creation, designed to be like crags of a rock. Garrett was hanging on by the tips of his fingers and pulling his entire body weight up until his chin hit the bottom.
Good Father in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come . . . please!
Yep. She couldn’t have planned for this. The full view of the very fit and shirtless Garrett Greenwood was not on her list of imagined potential scenarios. Scorn, yes. A slammed door in her face, most likely. A lazy grin, perhaps. But this?
He lowered his body again and spoke over his shoulder. “Yeah?” And back up he went.
The man released his hold, and his feet thudded onto the carpeted floor. He wiped his hands together as he turned, lifting his mahogany eyes. Now he was looking at her. Really looking at her. It was disconcerting, horrendous, and altogether the most awful thing she’d experienced in years. Annalise’s throat tightened. Raw anger mixed with betrayal, which couldn’t be healed with an “I’m sorry.”
“Q.” The old moniker slipped from his lips as easily as when they were young. Q. Annalise Quintessa. The very pretentious name her parents had given her when she was born. Evidence of their own quest to position themselves in the upper echelons of the Gossamer Grove community. Garrett always found it humorous and had dubbed her “Q” for her middle name just to irritate her. It had worked. It should have been her first warning sign.
“Hi.” The word was very inadequate for this moment.
Garrett snatched a T-shirt from the floor and shrugged into it, probably more to give himself something to do to fill the tense pause.
“You said you wouldn’t come back.” Annalise went for it. She wasn’t going to tiptoe around stupid pleasantries that were so fake a mannequin could see through them.
Garrett’s lip pulled up in disbelief. “You’re gonna go there already?”
“Yes. I am.”
“K then.” He didn’t bother to tug down the navy-blue T-shirt emblazoned with a climbing logo. The right side rode up on his hip while the left slouched over his pocket. “It’s been twelve years.”
“You said you wouldn’t come back,” she repeated. God help her, it was the only thing that came to mind. She was drowning in the brown bottomless chasms that were his eyes, and not in a good way. It was that same magnetic field that had sucked her in as a young girl. She hated it. She had prayed it would have dissipated over a decade’s worth of distance.
“Gossamer Grove is my home too, you know.” Garrett ran his fingers through his shaggy brown hair. He marched across the room into the kitchen. Annalise heard the faucet turn on and water filling a glass. She allowed herself the right to enter and follow him.
“And you’re here to work with Doug Larson on the land I’ve been trying to get the town to relinquish. Pulling strings because your sister is the mayor?” Annalise entered the kitchen and watched him gulp down the water.
“Wow.” He planted the glass firmly on the counter, his eyes narrowing. “That’s low, even for you.”
“Even for me? You don’t even know me.” Annalise’s words came out a hoarse whisper. “You never did know me.” She knew she sounded snippy. Mean even. Like a bitter old maid set out to pasture. Whatever that meant. But if only people could see inside her, they would see the pain, the unhealed wounds. They would understand. But no one had dared to do that, not even Garrett.
He interlocked his fingers behind his head, his elbows sticking out. “It’s been years, Q, let it go.”
“Fine.” The man really had no idea, no clue what she’d suffered, did he? “It must be nice to gallivant all over Europe while I had to stay here in Gossamer Grove and . . . ‘let it go.’”
His hands dropped to his side. Garrett took a step forward. “Hey—”
“Never mind. I just came by to tell you we’re neighbors, in case you didn’t already know.”
Garrett didn’t say anything. He had to know she still lived in her childhood home.
“Well, we are,” Annalise affirmed.
“Okay?” Garrett’s tone registered the unspoken question of So?
Annalise backed away and turned toward the front door. She stopped and looked over her shoulder, once again locking eyes with the man who, as a boy, had more than broken her heart. He’d broken her.
“So stay away from me. Please.” The wobble in her voice betrayed the tender thread of emotion hiding behind her bravado. She could tell Garrett noticed, but he didn’t even blink.
“Not a problem.”
Not his problem. She should have been, though. She should have been.
Annalise closed the door softly behind her. Wishing Garrett Greenwood away wasn’t going to do a thing. Not when her bedroom window was opposite his, and not when their history together built an invisible bridge between the windowpanes.
Libby stood against the yellow-striped papered walls in the Greenwood parlor. The scent of flowers suffocated her as bouquets sat on every end table, shelf, and flat surface. A mirror on the opposite wall was also covered in black crepe to comply with the customary superstition that the deceased’s spirit might be trapped in the looking glass for eternity. The piano was closed to forbid music or revelry. Gauzy crepe draped the south corner of the room. Nestled in its swooping embrace was the casket of Deacon Harrison Greenwood.
They’d arrived earlier than other invited guests. A special message in their funeral invitation had been penned by Deacon Greenwood’s widow to Libby’s mother, head of the Martha Washington Ladies’ Society, and therefore a logical first choice for support—regardless of emotional intimacy or friendship.
Standing sentinel over his dead father was Elijah. His lean body encased in a black suit, his dark brown hair tamed with some sort of fancy pomade, and his eyes steeled with emotional fortitude.
Libby’s mother moved toward the casket, her black dress brushing across the Oriental wool carpet, but Libby didn’t follow. Black. Mourning. It was all so dark. No wonder people avoided talk of death, and cemeteries, and Memento Mori, the photographs taken after the loved one had passed. It was morbid and unsettling.
Glancing at the ornate mantel clock, Libby noted it had been stopped as was customary, and in this case it was halted at the approximate time of Deacon Greenwood’s death. Libby blinked away the image of the stilled clock hands. The time she’d discovered Deacon Greenwood was hardly the exact time he’d passed.
She wrapped her arms around herself, squelching a shudder. Doctor Penchan had concluded death by asphyxiation brought on by Deacon Greenwood’s own hand. The police had questioned her, digging for answers as to why she’d been at the Greenwood home so early in the morning with Calvin. A puddle of nervous anxiety, Libby had done exactly what Paul instructed her not to do. She’d told the police everything.
“Do you have the obituary?” they asked her.
“No,” she’d answered. Elijah did.
The undisguised look of disgust hurt more than she wished to admit. They believed it a ploy. A story. One of the officers even said as much.
“Why were you at the Greenwood home?” They insisted on a more plausible answer, one that didn’t reek of Mitch Sheffield’s attempt to monopolize on a dead man’s escape from the earth.
“I told you,” she said.
“It wouldn’t have anything to do with your infatuation with Elijah Greenwood, would it?”
Libby had sealed her lips in that moment. She couldn’t help it if the town knew she’d danced in Elijah’s shadow since she was young. Rumors long abounded that Libby Sheffield had put off matrimony in hopes Elijah would take notice—more than he already had. Even Elijah knew this. But Elijah also knew why Libby had such devotion. Neither of them would ever explain.
The police wrote off her presence, and nothing was mentioned of the obituary again. Everything pointed toward a desperate man making an escape from the world.
How did one pay respects to the family of a man who’d taken his own life? Especially when you were the only one in the room who believed, in fact, that he’d been murdered instead? Libby’s gaze darted around the room, the voices murmuring behind gloved hands positioned over mouths to discreetly converse becoming distant echoes. She blinked. The room spun, like being on a carousel. Slow, methodical, her eyes skimming the faces. What if Deacon Greenwood’s killer stood here, posing as a grieving friend while reveling in the deacon’s potential condemnation to Hell?
Libby blinked furiously, a strong buzzing whirring in her ears, her heart colliding with her rib cage with a force far too great for her to remain standing for long. A deep breath, inhaling through her nose and letting out through her mouth. Her own gloved hand clutched her throat, willing herself to remain upright.
She focused on her mother, who was embracing Mrs. Greenwood. Their hold was stiff and formal, that of two acquaintances who respected the hierarchy of their small town, and even appearances. What a sad waste. In a moment such as this, a grieving widow needed a dear friend, not one who led the church’s women’s club.
His dark tone jolted Libby from her attempt to avoid a dead faint. Never mind that. She was struggling to breathe now for other reasons altogether. Libby met Elijah’s somber eyes.
“Come” was all he said. He took her gloved hand and held it between his even as he led her to stand over his dead father. Libby restrained herself from pulling away, from making a scene. Elijah hadn’t released her hand, and she was very aware of the warmth that emanated from his grasp. She reminded herself once again it was not a hand held out of affection but a grip that insinuated much more.
Libby focused on Deacon Greenwood as was proper, though she didn’t miss the close proximity of Elijah’s chest to her shoulder. The older man looked made of wax, and after a few days his body was already beginning to sink into itself. Flowers bordered his casket to mask the odor of death and finality.
“I’m so sorry.” The platitude came from her heart, but it carried the same molded sound of everyone else’s sympathy.
“Are you?” Elijah muttered as he surveyed his father’s face, the gray hair combed away from his strong forehead, and the straight nose Libby recalled wrinkling when he smiled.
“Of course!” Libby cast Elijah a wary sideways glance. He had to know she didn’t kill his father or write that morbid, plagiarized obituary. Nor did she have the strength to haul the dead weight of a body by rope over rafters some feet over her head.
“Yes. You’re sorry.” Resignation seeped into Elijah’s voice. “You’re always . . . sorry.”
And she was. She always had been. Libby fixated on the dead man. Being alone, reading, hiding away from anything dysfunctional was her pastime of choice. Calvin was her only friend. Now she had been thrust into Deacon Greenwood’s death with a force that was entirely unwelcome.
“I cannot believe my father would—” Elijah swallowed hard, his sentence left unfinished. “But the obituary you entrusted me with? I cannot fathom the implications of . . .” His words trailed away, as if reminding himself she was not his personal confidante. She never had been.
Words filtered from Elijah’s mouth, and Libby leaned toward him to hear them.
“‘Thrilling to think, poor child of sin! It was the dead that groaned within.’”
“Pardon?” Libby’s voice notched upward a pitch.
Elijah started, and their eyes met, locking in a mutual bewilderment. Her, for horror that Elijah whispered Poe with the finesse of a devoted reader, and he for the apparent shock that he’d spoken aloud.
Libby said nothing but watched as Elijah’s eyes darkened, only to sense that old familiar pang as the haunted hollowness returned to them.
“My father—he’d written it on a piece of paper. They found it beneath his feet, kicked under the straw. But it was written in his hand. It was his signature that sealed it.”
Libby couldn’t tear her eyes from Elijah’s. Searching, aching to understand the conundrum that was the mysteriously sad and morose person she’d known since childhood. Known him in a comradery of silence. Known him as her hero and the man who would never love her, could never love her until she told the truth—her truth.
By whoever’s hand Deacon Greenwood had died, his last and final penned words sucked the breath from Libby. The shared knowing in Elijah’s eyes was neither accusation nor empathy. It was resigned. They both knew. Oh, how they knew! Sin had a wicked way of creeping into one’s soul and tainting its edges with the inevitable groan that one carried with them, with their secrets, into the grave.
Sleep was mocking her. Annalise stared at the ceiling from her bed, the moonlight setting off the old Victorian bedroom with a deep blue glow. She had been used to living alone in her childhood home for years now, ever since her parents sold it to her and moved south. But now? Annalise shot a look at the darker corners of the room. Of course, there was no one there, but she couldn’t shake the image of an old man, bandanna wrapped around his forehead, crouching in the corner. He stared at her, narrowed eyes, wrinkled skin, flipping a photograph of her between his fingers. Back and forth, back and forth.
“Aaah!” Annalise sat up and grappled for the chain on the old-fashioned lamp by her bed. Light flooded the room. The imagined vision of Eugene Hayes dissipated.
Annalise took a deep breath and leaned back against her pillows. She reached for her cellphone. Anything to distract herself. Pulling up Facebook, she scrolled through her newsfeed filled with pointless memes, random status updates, and pictures of family and friends. She had to get this uneasy feeling under control. Eugene Hayes was dead. The photographs were a mystery to the police force and probably wouldn’t ever be fully explained. It was over before it had begun, and yet . . .
Annalise looked over at her window. Laying down her phone, she flipped back the covers and padded across the wood floor. Her hand grasped the filmy curtains and pushed them aside. She looked down at the house next door, at the window staring up at her.
It was dark, as was the rest of the house. Which made sense since it was the early hours of morning yet.
There was so much coincidence. Garrett coming home right after Eugene Hayes died in possession of that picture. The one taken at the Greenwood home when she was eighteen. How had the old man ever gotten ahold of it? Of any of them, really? But the fact that he had an obituary of a Greenwood from years past unnerved her. He’d made some sort of connection between her and them. He must have.
Movement snagged Annalise’s attention. She squinted, trying to make out the shadows, the light from her bedroom glowing behind her not helping. They didn’t get much wildlife in town, but on occasion she’d seen a white-tailed deer wandering through her yard as if lost. The dark form moved behind an evergreen bush at the corner of Garrett’s house. Poor deer. It must be as lost as she felt right now. Dislocated and wishing to return to normal.
A cold fear coiled in her stomach. Annalise frowned, leaning closer to the window. That wasn’t a deer. She leapt backward, grabbing at the cord and tugging so the window shade slammed down onto the sill, blocking her room from the outside. The window sheers were pointless against it, and the moonlight no longer inviting. It was ominous. Revealing the form of the man crouching outside, staring up at her. Staring into her room.
He was probably one of the many homeless—the ones she was trying to help at the food pantry. The reason she was vying for the property at the edge of town to build a shelter. So they didn’t have to wander.
Annalise sprinted to her bed and took a flying leap onto it, making sure her feet were nowhere close enough for any imaginary man hiding under her bed to grab them. She curled her knees to her chest.
An old man dead, one who possessed a series of photographs of her. Now a man outside of her window, watching her.
Maybe helping these people wasn’t such a great idea after all. Not if her privacy would be invaded, not if they were going to develop some inexplicable obsession with her, and definitely not if she was going to spend sleepless nights in a lighted room praying away some unknown bogeyman.
In the daylight, the idea of a man crouching outside her window seemed as preposterous as the idea of Eugene Hayes crouching in the corner of her bedroom. Yet, Annalise couldn’t shake that she had seen someone.
This was all going to her head. Emotions, fears, memories? They were the fodder for imagination and illogic. Annalise sniffed, tucked an escaped strand of coppery hair back into her hair tie, and blinked rapidly as if by doing so she could clear not only her vision but also her mind.
She allowed herself a moment to skim the morning crowd that perched at tables, along the barn-door bar, and in the cozy lounge area with stuffed couches and chairs. The double doors that led into the attached food pantry were shut, locked for the morning. The volunteers would open it at ten o’clock. Thank the Lord for the members of the local Lutheran church who had taken the pantry under their charitable wing. It would have been madness to run the coffee shop and the pantry simultaneously. But, Annalise took a sip of her wimpy caffé misto, she would have done it. Her soul resonated with those who wandered into the pantry for assistance. She may never have been in need or want of material things, but sometimes the hollowness reflected in the eyes of those in need had less to do with a warm blanket and more to do with abandonment. Rejection. Condemnation.
God help her, she needed to quit with this introspection! Annalise gulped down the rest of the coffee and performed an overhand toss of the cup into the wastebasket a few yards away.
“Lebron James got nothin’ on you!” One of the college-aged baristas clapped a high five with the palm she instinctively held up.
Annalise moved her hand from the high five and finished with a short wave at Mrs. Duncan, the head of the Silver Saints Knitting Club that met in the shop every Tuesday morning. She attempted to breathe in normalcy, but her breath hitched as her eyes alighted on the far corner table.
Her curse was muttered under her breath. The Lebron-James-touting barista shot her a surprised glance. She stifled a low chuckle.
Yes. Yes, you all, I can sin and swear with the best of them.
Her eyes collided with Garrett’s across the room. His muscular body draped over his chair turned backward toward the round table. His arms rested across the back of the chair, and his face was expressionless when he spotted her. The trendy blonde next to him followed his stare. Her eyes, made smoky with effortless eye-shadow application, drilled into Annalise’s.
Annalise realized she was going to need to sit down tonight and plan for these types of moments. Garrett was back in town, whether she approved or not, and being blindsided every time she saw him wasn’t going to benefit anyone.
Summoning courage, she decided not to duck into her office like a coward, but rather to face her fear and greet them both. It wasn’t fair she had to feel ostracized by the generational offspring of one of Gossamer Grove’s founding families. It also wasn’t fair that Nicole’s chin-length, edgy haircut was so stinking attractive that it made Annalise feel old-fashioned and far too much of a librarian with her twisted ballet bun and chunky glasses.
Nicole offered a smile as Annalise neared them. It didn’t reach her eyes, but then it wasn’t cold either. It was . . . impartial. That was the word.
“Annalise.” Nicole tipped her head.
“Hi.” There. That was a special kind of greeting. Annalise inwardly smacked herself. It wasn’t Nicole who made her tongue-tied. It was Garrett. Whose slouch hadn’t even bothered to straighten, or tense, or look the slightest bit stressed.
Nicole glanced between them. “I take it you’re aware Garrett’s home.”
“Oh, very.” Annalise nodded, offering a tight-lipped smile that didn’t try to disguise the underlying snark.
“I’m leaving you alone,” he shrugged. As if his whole thirty-one years of maturity was diminished to a schoolboy’s challenge. His dark eyes flashed.
Nicole eased from her chair, her lithe frame clad in blue jeans and a flowing tan cardigan that brushed her hips. The red hue of her filmy blouse matched the tone of her lips. She offered Annalise a smile even as she extended her hand to cup Annalise’s shoulder. It was friendship for show, like almost everything else in Gossamer Grove. Nicole leaned in.
“We both know that Garrett being home may lend itself toward resurfaced hard feelings. But the past is the past, Annalise. For both of our sakes, we have critical issues to focus on, whether we agree on them or not. Many decisions are to be made, and we both have our affections for this town. Let’s keep our priorities straight, yes?”
Annalise bit the inside of her cheek. Then her tongue. Would slapping the town’s mayor across the face be a bad idea? Yes. Probably.
“I’ve kept my priorities straight for many years, Nicole.” Annalise looked past the woman at Garrett. “All of my priorities.”
For a moment, a shadow flickered in his eyes. He had the decency to look down and distract himself with his coffee. Funny, how twelve years later, Nicole was still speaking for her brother. The orange T-shirt he wore stretched across his taut muscles as he lifted his cup to his mouth. His carved lips took a sip of the brew.
Annalise swallowed, her face burning. She remembered his mouth. Why didn’t some sensory things fade with time? Garrett looked back up, and for a moment there was a plea in his eyes. The kind of pitiable plea that was fast hidden by the need to cover it, to be plastic, to carry on as though nothing ever hurt them.
“I’ve things to do. Nice seeing you both.” Annalise waggled her fingers as she veered back toward her office on that monumental lie. Nice wasn’t ever a word she could associate with them, unless she went way back into her vault of memories to the time when it was just Garrett and her, and a dare that turned into friendship. Before it shattered into a million irreparable pieces.
Annalise fumbled with her phone to read the text Brent sent. She swallowed one of those lumps that lodged in a person’s throat when they didn’t want to cry and didn’t want to acknowledge emotion. But, Garrett’s presence had stirred up a hornet’s nest of feelings inside her, stinging hurt that swelled and throbbed in a rhythmic reminder of pain. Now this.
She stared at the text.
Hayes’s death will hit paper today. Ongoing investigation. You may be named if Tyler gets wind of the pictures. Chin up, A. We got your back.
Tyler Darrow. He had the local newspaper just teetering on the verge of being a gossip rag, and he loved to pick at town secrets. If Tyler nosed his way in, having this story front and center for the town to read would be dreadful. A destitute elderly man dying just as Annalise was pushing the town to donate property for a shelter and to invest in those very souls? That could be beneficial to her cause, if she were heartless. Proof that Gossamer Grove needed to wake up and see the homeless!
But then there was the issue of her pictures, splayed all over Eugene Hayes’s run-down trailer. And she? She was nowhere to be found. No aid. No assistance. No record of Annalise Forsythe ever helping the poor old soul. She didn’t practice what she preached, and the food pantry was a sham for her to skim off the top to make her coffee shop more lucrative.
Lies. All of them. But Annalise knew Tyler well, and Tyler would spin it that way in a heartbeat. In the words of her very eternally focused Aunt Tracy, “Lord Jesus, come quickly!”
Annalise recited the words in her head. She actually didn’t mean them. If Jesus came now, it might have a good effect on a few, but biblically speaking, it meant an apocalypse for the multitude. She wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
Annalise shot back a quick OK to Brent in text form. What more could she say? She leaned forward and reached for her second coffee of the day, perched on the desktop calendar on her desk. Her office was her sanctuary, her respite, her place to collect wayward thoughts and put them in some semblance of order. It was her—
Her coffee sloshed through the sip hole of its lid as Annalise jumped. She snapped her head up, sucking a puddle of coffee from her hand that was dripping down to her wrist.
Annalise’s eyes met Garrett’s. So much for her private sanctuary. “Yes?” She tipped her head and waited.
Garrett’s arms were crossed, his forearms heavily corded from hours of climbing. She could see chalk dust embedded in the corners of his fingernails. The desk stood between them. A cornfield, no, an ocean would have been preferable.
“I thought you deserved to know why I came back.”
So much for her ocean.
“I do know.”
Garrett’s brow raised in question. His strong jawline curved toward a chin with a crease down its middle. He hadn’t shaved in maybe two days. Chestnut brown hair was floppy on top with sides haphazardly trimmed. The guy was sloppy, but he sure smelled good. Nutmeg, or apple pie, or something.
“You came back to help Nicole ramp up the tourism economy in Gossamer Grove. Make yourself a happy little place for all your climbing buddies to hang. Literally.” Annalise crossed her own arms, but her right hand gripped her coffee as if it were a lifeline.
Garrett shook his head. “Nope. Nic doesn’t need my help. And professionals wouldn’t come here to climb.” He didn’t say it arrogantly, just as fact. Apparently, the resort wouldn’t be professional climbing caliber.
Annalise took the moment to sip her coffee. “Okay, then why?”
Garrett shifted his weight and jammed his hands into the pockets of his shorts. She couldn’t help but notice his calves. Built. The guy was built. Better than her senior year of high school. This must be what over ten years on the professional climbing circuit did to a man. Rock solid—no pun intended.
“Larson contacted me for my expertise in helping design and run his wilderness center. He wants to put in a climbing gym and a zip line. Maybe lead bouldering tours—there are great boulders in the woods near the park. I’m not getting any younger.”
“Thirty-one is old?” Annalise raised an eyebrow.
Garrett shrugged. “In competition? It’s getting there. I’m competing against nineteen-year-old brutes. Their climbing skills are sick. I need a plan for the rest of my life.”
“No more sleeping in decked-out vans and climbing cliffs in Switzerland?” Annalise took another sip of her coffee.
“You followed my career?” Garrett asked.
Annalise choked. Darn it. “No. Yes. I mean, it’s hard not to when you’re practically the town’s pride and joy. Garrett Greenwood, continuing the great line of Gossamer Grove Greenwoods. Medaling in competitions and exploring Europe and Asia. You’re hard to ignore.”
“I’m hard to ignore?”
Annalise closed her eyes and forced herself to take a deep, controlled breath. When she opened her eyes, Garrett’s expression was searching.
“I don’t want trouble, Q. Neither does Nic. We just want to go about life fair and square, okay? The wilderness center will be good for the town, for the people who visit for our outdoor elements here in Gossamer Grove. It’ll get people into physical stuff and away from technology.”
It dawned on Annalise. Very clearly. The decision for the property and the wilderness center had already been made, just not formalized. There would be no land for a shelter, no acknowledgment of the great need shared by those who’d been ostracized by the community.
“I understand.” Her voice came out in a whisper, squeezed by the tension of tears.
“No. I’d rather not.” She made pretense of organizing paper clips in the tray on her desk. She needed him to go away, before tears slipped out and shamed her. Before Garrett discovered how wounded she still was, and how the past was anything but resolved.
“Q . . .”
She sniffed and pushed the paper clips into a pile. “The great Greenwoods. Always looking out for Gossamer Grove.” She bit her lip as it quivered, glancing up at him. “And ignoring the little people.”
Annalise Quintessa Forsythe may sound lofty, but her parents had failed miserably. Owning a reputable law firm still hadn’t been enough to compete with the Greenwoods’ hierarchy of banking, industrial factory, and four generations of mayors.
She reached for her planner and a pen, under pretense of returning to work. “Goodbye, Garrett.”
There was no resolution in ignoring him as he left her office, silent and without apology.
Can I get into the trailer?” Annalise knew Brent would tell her no, but she had to ask anyway. “Well?” she pressed him.
“No.” Brent crossed the linoleum kitchen floor, his plaid flannel pajama pants matching his ruffled hair.
Annalise swung her attention to Christen, who sat on a stool at the breakfast bar.
“Why can’t she?” Christen challenged her man.
Brent leaned against the counter. “You two are like bulldogs. Let up, okay? I don’t have the authority to let you into Eugene Hayes’s private property, and we don’t know COD yet.”
“You said he died of a heart attack,” Annalise argued.
Brent shrugged. “Sure, that’s what the ME thinks. But until we have it official, we don’t know.”
“Oh gawsh, you don’t think he was murdered, do you?” Christen squirmed on her stool, peeling her breakfast orange.
Christen’s question may have been flippant and offhanded, but Annalise chilled at the idea. She sank onto the stool next to Christen.
Brent cleared his throat and gave them both a stern eye. “Listen, you two. I can’t discuss the case details with you outside of what I’ve already questioned you on. I’m not even the lead investigator. And I absolutely cannot grant you clearance to snoop around the old man’s trailer—not that you’d want to. It stinks like nothing else.”
“I want to,” Annalise said. “I want to see if I can figure out why he was photograph-stalking me. Doesn’t that unnerve you? It’s not normal. Brent, how did Tyler find out my pictures were plastered all over Eugene’s place? This morning’s paper was practically an exposé. And that random obituary paper-clipped to my senior picture?” She emphasized the last two words in hopes Brent would get her insinuation. Christen didn’t know the repercussions of Annalise’s eighteenth year, and Annalise preferred it that way. But Brent did. And the picture paper-clipped to the obituary of some dead Greenwood ancestor could not be coincidental. The old man had linked her to the Greenwoods, though why a dead one was important, she had no clue.
Brent looked away. Good. He’d gotten her point. She couldn’t afford to have the newspaper digging into the significance of that.
“Well?” Christen broke the awkward silence. “How did the paper find out?”
Brent swung his attention to his wife. “I don’t know. Someone probably unintentionally leaked it. Gossamer Grove is a small town. It happens.”
“Sue for libel.” Christen snapped her fingers.
Annalise rolled her eyes and sighed. “That’ll make it all better.”
“Well?” Christen shrugged. “Tyler needs to know he tiptoes on the edge of slander.”
“So does the National Enquirer and they’ve never been stopped,” Brent muttered.
“They’re still in print?” Christen’s tone was incredulous.
“I think so.” Brent popped an orange slice into his mouth.
“Oh. Well, I read People, so . . .” Christen left her sentence hanging.
“Point made. That type of journalism isn’t going away.” Annalise leaned forward, trying to soften the panic in her voice. Her old friend met her gaze, and she knew Brent recognized the anxiety that rested there. “I can’t have my name smeared through the mud—not before I put up a fighting chance against Doug Larson for the town property.” Not that it would make a difference now. “This is important to me. For people like Eugene Hayes who need recognition in this overly proud community. We have a homelessness issue, and it’s growing.”
Christen shifted in her seat to address Annalise. The citrus scent of her orange drifted into Annalise’s nose and refreshed her senses, if not her nerves. “Why does it really matter, Annalise? People know your intentions are good. It’s not like you’re hiding anything, right?”
Annalise looked down at her fingernails.
Brent choked on the glass of water he’d just swallowed. He set his glass on the counter. Diversion. Christen swung her attention back to him.
“If I were you, Annalise,” Brent said, controlling the conversation, “I’d look into who Harrison Greenwood was. The man mentioned in the obituary. That’s what the newspaper would do first. See if there’s any tie to you, or why Eugene Hayes would’ve had reason to try to link you to that man specifically.”
“Linked to an old obituary?” Christen shivered and plopped an orange section into her mouth. Chewing, she continued, “That’s super freaky. I mean, ghost freaky.”
“There’s no Greenwood ghost haunting me,” Annalise mumbled, then bit her tongue. Well, it depended on if one meant actual spirits. The image of the man outside her bedroom window washed over her. She met Brent’s eyes. Fine. Slipping off the stool, Annalise nodded.
“Okay. That makes sense.” She accepted the clue Brent was subtly handing her. If Eugene Hayes was fascinated by her—which the pictures of her more than implied—then he had to have somehow connected her to a yellowed old obituary and a tent revival.
Annalise could read the message in Brent’s eyes. Find the answer before the paper does.
“That’s all I can do for you.” Brent’s statement chilled Annalise.
All he could do? The newspaper edging its way into her past, random old artifacts that appeared to mean nothing, and Garrett Greenwood returning to town? She needed something—a miracle. Her regimented world was collapsing by the second, and her only option was to research what Harrison Greenwood, the man who died in 1907, had to do with her? More than likely, he had more to do with Garrett, and that made it all so much worse.
A low fog settled over the grassy lawn by Gossamer Pond, with the moon a half slit in the sky. Within a few days it would be a moonless sky, like the pall the funeral earlier that day had left over the town. The evening breeze sent a chill through Libby as she paused. The outline of a large tented structure rose alongside the pond, its frame imposing and new. Dusk outlined the rectangular tent, its canvas a dark gray with the front doors pulled wide and fastened back to invite souls inside. Ropes stretched from the corners and midpoints of the structure to wrap around metal posts hammered into the ground. It was almost like a circus tent, only this wasn’t the Big Top, and the entertainment was a different kind of show. It was spiritual.
Residents of Gossamer Grove lined up their various forms of transportation in the field just west of the tent. Motorcars, wagons, carriages, and some lone horses. Men, women, and children alike all gravitated toward the tent’s entrance. Libby knew they were a mixture of curiosity, faith, and trepidation. Tent revivals had been sweeping the nation the last few years and had finally made their way to Gossamer Grove in the form of Jedidiah and Jacobus Corbin. Since the mid-nineteenth century, people such as D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday had been shaking up people’s eternal security. Some, like Moody, seemed well received, with church revival spreading rampantly. Others, like Sunday, were stirring controversy with unscripted tirades from a mouth straight from the baseball field instead of the seminary.
Mitch had told her one paper he’d read said Sunday was so “raw” that they refused to print his words. He used language unfit for feminine dispositions, and even some men were so stricken by his preaching, they were taken from the tent on stretchers, having swooned like a female whose corset was tied too tight.
Libby narrowed her eyes, attempting to catch a glimpse of the Reverends Corbin through the bright lantern-lit inside of the meeting place. Supposedly, the twin brothers had traveled with Sunday for a while and now had struck out to evangelize on their own. Hopefully, tonight’s female attendees had loosened their corsets—assuming the Corbin brothers had picked up on Sunday’s bad habits.
The smell of kerosene from the lamps was pungent as she neared the meeting place. Libby searched for Mitch, but there were so many in attendance, she couldn’t find him. The message he’d left with Paul to have her join him at the tent revival meeting left her scrambling to help finish proofs on the articles going to press that night. She gave Paul a timid reminder to be prepared for Mitch to come busting through the doors at midnight with a special report on the revival. Paul’s sneer told Libby all she needed to know about how he felt about that.
Libby caught a glimpse of Old Man Whistler, the town drunk. She was taken aback that he would even be here, and yet it stood to reason, she supposed. The Corbin brothers were a curiosity.
Whistler brushed alongside her, his shaking elbow knocking into her arm as his knuckles gripped the bulbous end of his cane.
“Come to get yerself saved?” he cackled, and Libby tried to hide her repulsion toward the old man and his musty breath.
“I already am, thank you.” She moved a step away.
Old Man Whistler chuckled. “I’ve a feeling we all will be after tonight. Unless we want to hang along with Deacon Greenwood. Even the good can’t hide their sin forever, you know.”
The elderly man gave her a sideways glance before leaving her behind. Libby swallowed hard. Hide their sin? She watched him wobble toward the tent’s doorway. Old Man Whistler probably should not be underestimated. He was a wanderer, and wanderers saw things—knew things. His remark struck close to the obituary’s heart. The insinuation of hidden sins. But, Deacon Greenwood’s slate was so clean, even Mitch had never been able to find a speck of dust on it.
Libby startled as a grating shriek erupted from inside the tent. Gracious, there was an organ! The music began to play, and the shivering tones and airy puffs from the pump organ blasted from the door. Row upon row of attendees lined two sides of the tent with an aisle down the middle covered in sawdust. Libby should have come earlier to find Mitch. There was no way she would now. She stretched up on her tiptoes, but the sea of bowler hats, feathers, bonnets, and bare heads made identifying anyone nearly impossible. The sun had almost completely gone down, and even now, little children were being shushed as ushers made their way up the aisle indicating they were not to disturb with whining and crying.
Libby moved to the other side of the tent, hoping she could edge her way inside and find an unobtrusive spot to stand along the canvas wall. It was hot inside the tent, stuffy with the smells of perfume, sweat, and fresh sawdust. She fumbled with the neckline of her blouse, tempted to remove the cameo brooch and unbutton the lace at her throat.
The organ music whined to a halt.
Someone coughed. A child whimpered and was quickly shushed.
Libby strained to see the front. A modest stage, a pulpit, and . . .
“Sin!” The deep voice branded the atmosphere with authority. “It will deceive you. It will drag you to the depths of hell with the claws of demons leading the way.”
Libby froze. The vivid picture the Corbin brother drew had the entire meeting place holding their collective breath. Trepidation spread uninvited through the shelter.
Jedidiah Corbin was a man of medium height, with lamb-chop whiskers along his cheeks and wavy brown hair parted down the middle. He couldn’t be much older than Libby. His early thirties perhaps. The flyer advertising tonight’s event identified this twin as the eldest. His brother, Jacobus, was very obviously missing from attendance.
He stalked across the platform. “The darkness that festers in our souls is like a poison that, but for the grace of God, cannot be squeezed from our hearts.”
Libby scanned the crowd around her, twisting the material of her dress in her hands. Running was implausible, but preferable to being here. There was no comfort—no conviction—in the words. Merely impending doom and destruction. Jedidiah Corbin might as well have combined his message with Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry, and the congregation would have barely been able to tell the difference.
She jumped as Corbin’s foot stomped on the platform.
“But the grace of God is real!” Corbin’s gravelly voice rose with intensity, and he flung his arm forward as if throwing a baseball. “It is the damnable misrepresentation of theology that allows us to sin and wait until we lay on our deathbeds, gasping for our last breaths, to lay penitent before the Lord. That a whore can continue in her sin with a backward confession to cover the last evening’s errancy. That a drunkard may swallow his liquor along with a prayer. That a thief can pocket coins from the offering plate while admitting other sins to his priest. This hypocrisy is from the pit of the lake of fire and must cease before we hang ourselves from the rafters of a house built on lies!”
An audible gasp arose from the crowd. Whether from the language of curses and vulgar frankness mixed with grace or the reference to hanging, Libby wasn’t sure. Murmurs and heads turned toward each other. Libby’s throat closed with the claustrophobic reality that Reverend Jedidiah Corbin danced on the circumstances of Deacon Greenwood’s death.
“May we not die a sinful wretch unforgiven!”
No more. Please, no more.
Libby shoved through the people toward the tent opening. Her breaths came in short, suffocating gasps. The black sky outside, with only the tiny shaft of moon to light the banks of the pond, held little escape from this sense of being squeezed. She hurried to the pond’s bank, staring into glowing waters.
She shrieked. Spinning around, her arms wrapped across her chest, she squinted in the darkness at the form that had come up behind her. She glanced toward the pond, a deep gray reflection rippling in the water. Being trapped between the water and the shadowy form was intimidating.
The man tipped his head, and as he did, his face turned into the shaft of moonlight.
“It’s you.” Libby’s breath released in a whoosh. She stepped toward him, away from the bank.
“Who did you think it was?” Elijah frowned. “I was almost certain you intended to launch yourself into the pond.”
“The thought did cross my mind, but of course that would be nonsensical, and it wouldn’t help a soul.” Libby abruptly ended her nervous chatter. Her skin had broken out into little bumps.
“I noticed you escaped the revival.” Elijah looked back toward the tent. “I had to as well.”
Libby nodded. “It was quite . . . well, I wasn’t finding myself drawn to salvation. Maybe if I’d stayed I would have. I mean, it’s not that I’m not saved as it is, but if I weren’t—if I didn’t believe in God—I mean, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ—then I would be going to hell, I suppose.” She stumbled to a halt. Elijah was not standing before her to inquire about the state of her eternal soul.
“Why are you here?” She sought for an avenue of escape from her scattered thoughts.
Elijah took a step closer to the pond, and he watched its dark outline for a moment. “My father was to give the closing prayer.” His quiet voice, so matter-of-fact, explained why a grieving son would attend a revival meeting on the day of his father’s funeral. Not that it would have been enough of a reason to give Libby the compulsion to attend, but Elijah was, after all, a Greenwood. They stood on principle, not feelings.
“Don’t, Libby.” His voice dropped an octave, thick with memories and truths long buried between them. Elijah turned to her. His dark eyes were troubled, his newsboy cap tugged down over his hair. “I need to clean up after my father’s affairs. To take over the mill and get it in order. I cannot—” He seemed to struggle to find words. “I cannot pick at an open wound with suggestions of foul play over my father’s own cowardice toward life.”
“That’s unfair,” Libby dared reprimand him. Elijah gave her a sharp look. “One never knows why a person determines to end his life before God chooses. Perhaps there was heartbreak, a sense of lost direction, or maybe—maybe—burdens weighted him down. You mustn’t speak with such judgment toward your father.”
She floundered. But it hadn’t been suicide, had it? She knew it. So, if he were honest with himself, did Elijah.
Elijah’s jaw worked back and forth in the darkness. She could see the sharp outline of his chin, the cleft there, and the sad lack of joy at the corners of his eyes. Libby tried again, mustering the courage to confront the man she far preferred to stay in the shadow of.
“No.” Elijah held up his hand.
“But, you cannot discount it!” Libby insisted. “Why would you want to discount it? If it means your father’s life was taken against his will—if someone determined to remove him from this world for feelings of ill will or perhaps a personal vendetta?”
“Oh, the questions! Don’t forget, Libby, what of the note? In the straw? Did my father have secrets? What man doesn’t, I ask? Must he die for them? Or take his own life for them?” Elijah’s voice rose, and he stifled his outburst by running his palm across his mouth and looking beyond Libby toward something unseen. Finally, he met her eyes, the moonlight reflecting in his pupils. “I’m not in a place where I can—where I can contemplate it.”
How very selfish! Libby swallowed back her ire and tried to temper her voice. The words came in a nervous stutter. “W-whyever not? You’re willing to risk another life if they were to strike again by pretending your father’s death was not by another’s hand?”
Elijah tugged his hat down and sniffed. An awful silence was covered by the sound of the impassioned speech of Corbin in the distance and frogs peeping their night song at the pond’s edge. Then the organ started playing, its shaky tones wafting eerily over the night sky with the confessional tune of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
She wished Elijah would say something—anything. But he pushed his hands in his trouser pockets instead. Libby couldn’t read his face in the darkness of the night. His shoulders were tense, but finally he drew a deep breath in through his nose and let it out through his mouth. His words were grave, his tone deep, telling, and all too knowing.
“When, dear Libby, have you ever been concerned how others’ lives may be affected by another’s choice?”
It was an unfair question. Hurtful. But burdened with truth all at the same time. Elijah leaned forward, his breath against her face, and his mouth inches from her nose.
“This is what we do. We continue on. We forget what has happened and look toward the future.”
“This is . . . is, well, it’s murder. That’s what it is! To pretend it’s nothing is cowardice!” Libby knew she should not have said the words the moment they filtered from her lips.
Elijah’s eyebrows shot upward. His hand lifted, and he brushed the back of her cheek with his knuckles. “And we both know that you and I are the worst sort of cowards.”
His whispered words hung between them, bringing the horrid truth into the moment and damning their souls in the echoes of the tent revival.
On any other almost pitch-black night, Libby would have been at peace to walk home alone. The warm spring air, the crickets chirruping, lightning bugs flickering as the road took her from the outskirts of town toward the center. But tonight their two-story home with the gables and scalloped trim and stained-glass windows would be a welcome sight. Restlessness gripped her, along with guilt. They were feelings she didn’t want to explore—hadn’t wanted to explore since her fifteenth year of life. Almost nine years later, just a whispered word from Elijah and it set her heart astir. So much. So much had gone wrong, and yet so much had thrust her into Elijah’s life. Including the death of his father. The murder of his father, if he would only admit it, and if she’d not given him the obituary to secret away or destroy.
Libby clutched her dress, lifting it higher so she could hike faster and make it home. With the darkness pressing in, the imagery of Deacon Greenwood’s body grew more real. So did the gravel beneath her shoes, the shivering branches of the trees, the shafts of moonlight that illuminated shadows she’d not have seen if the moon weren’t peeking from behind a cloud.
Whoever had left that obituary at the paper had to know it’d been found. Had to know she had found it, for after all, it wasn’t a secret she was the one to have discovered the body. It was simple deduction. The police might rule it a fluke, but not the killer. Not the person responsible for kicking the stool from beneath Deacon Greenwood’s feet.
Libby hitched up her skirt and hurried faster. Alone on the country road from Gossamer Pond was not a place she preferred to be. Mitch must have scurried away from the revival meeting without her. He’d have a “stop the presses!” proclamation to sour-faced Paul, who would glare at his eccentric partner as Mitch slapped his indecipherable article on the desk. Elijah had disappeared into the throng. Townsfolk had already filtered past her, motor vehicles bouncing by, leaving her in a cloud of exhaust and dust. Carriages rolled past, wagons, and then Libby was very much alone. Lights from the tent behind her dimmed and went out. Someone was still there, yet no one she knew. It seemed everyone was so affected by Reverend Corbin’s preaching that they hadn’t the decency to pause and offer her transport.
Libby froze as a cat scurried across the road, its tail bushy and the fur on its back bristled as if escaping a foe. She fisted the green material of her dress, the flash of her white petticoat the only bright spot on the darkened lane. The trees rose thicker on either side of the lane, and although Libby could see fields to the east and the river winding to the west, the branches of the clusters of trees reminded her of skeletal arms poised to snatch her.
She picked up her pace, eyeing the bats that swooped and crisscrossed the lane in front of her. Their little black-winged bodies were catching mosquitoes, but Libby cringed as she hurried. They were like a bad omen, of something dark, someone evil, someone with intent to kill.
A squeaking tinny sound came out of the darkness behind her. Libby whirled on her heels and peered into the night from where she’d just traversed. The outline of a man astride a bicycle became clearer. His dark jacket billowed behind him as the wind picked up. The bicycle wobbled and metal clanked as the man neared her. A hat was tugged low over his face. Libby picked up her pace, spinning back toward town and stumbling over the uneven road. But, within a moment, the two-wheeled contraption was beside her, rolling along, slowing pace to match her strides.
She stumbled over a stick.
“Miss?” he repeated. His voice sounded familiar, but Libby had no desire to stop and identify who he was by squinting in the darkness.
“Please. I intend you no harm at all.”
Of course not. Every killer probably said that before stabbing, shooting, or—heavens—hanging their victim.
The bicyclist stopped and lifted his leg over the seat. Libby reached up to snatch the hatpin from her hat. Let the hat fall to the ground and be trampled, she was not going to die without a fight. A hatpin could inflict damage if necessary.
The command, the tone, the voice.
Reverend Jedidiah Corbin was tall. She recognized the voice now. Recognized his frame in the dark. Or was it his brother, Jacobus? His lanky form reminded her a bit of a branchless sapling. The craggy lines of his face, the whiskers that frizzed from the chops that bordered his face, and the deep-set eyes were not particularly friendly. He seemed ageless yet also not old.
Libby shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. “Reverend.” She acknowledged him but cast a wary glance around her. She readjusted the hatpin in her hand.
The reverend tipped his head, gripping the handlebars of the bicycle. “Jedidiah Corbin, miss.”
He’d known she was wondering, although it was more than likely a common question considering he was an identical twin.
“You’re alone. Quite disconcerting in this darkness.” An eyebrow lifted as he read her fear like a book propped open for perusal. “And unwise,” he added.
“I’m fine, thank you.” Pitiable response. Libby stiffened her shoulders. She would not cower beneath the imposing judgment of a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher.
Shouldn’t one feel safe in the presence of a godly man? And where was the man’s twin? Rumor had it they were inseparable, riding a tandem bicycle everywhere. This was a single bicycle, however.
“Allow me to escort you home.” Jedidiah Corbin tilted his head as if trying to see her features in the night.
“Thank you, but no.” Libby resumed her pace. She squinted, trying to maneuver over the ruts in the road that she could barely see.
He ignored her dismissal but kept beside her, wheeling his bicycle over divots and stones in the path. “I would not be doing God’s work to keep the weaker vessel safe if I allowed you to walk alone.”
The weaker vessel? Libby considered using the hatpin still poised in her hand just to prove she wasn’t helpless. But then, she wasn’t convinced she wasn’t helpless.
“I’ve heard rumblings about town this week as I prepared for tonight’s service. My brother, Jacobus, indicated there was a death of one of your church leaders. Jacobus is ill tonight and could not be with us.”
Libby wasn’t concerned why the other twin wasn’t there, but she did stifle a shiver as Jedidiah Corbin referred to Deacon Greenwood’s untimely death. She let the revivalist’s words remain unacknowledged. Maybe Libby was imagining it, but the grit in his voice seemed to take on a warning tone of a prophet who knew things everyone else did not.
“The circumstances around your deacon’s death, of the question surrounding who he really was. It does not bode well for the future of this town. Without a foundation of confession and grace, it will all fall.”
“I don’t believe anyone is questioning who Deacon Greenwood really was,” Libby muttered.
“No? I always believed that one who took his own life was a cavern filled with untold mysteries that drove him to that point.”
“Perhaps.” Libby didn’t want t