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SNOWHEDGE

Chapter 1

An autumn sun burned down on Greengrove Farm, flooding the charred skeleton of the kennel with harsh morning light. The fire had swept through the structure with the fury of an avenger on a mission. In the end, only the main house escaped with minor damage to the veranda. It hadn’t been the arsonist’s target.

I stood on layers of crushed leaves and scorched vegetation, allowing myself one last look at a dream in ashes.

The home of Larkspur Collies was as dead as the dried stalks at my feet, as dead as the point of this sad, sentimental stop on my way out of town. Impatiently I blinked away the tears and walked back to my car, eager to begin the long drive north to Maple Creek before anything else happened.

I had a plan: All of my possessions packed and a road map of Michigan in the glove compartment. A place to go, my black collie, Romy, in the back seat of the Taurus, the puppies in a safe home.

It felt like running away, but that wasn’t accurate. Call it a strategic retreat or moving on or, simply, a temporary job in another county. Burning bridges? That too. However I chose to describe my leave-taking, I knew I’d never return to Greengrove again.

I pulled the keys out of my jacket pocket and opened the driver’s side door.

Now, hurry. Out of here.

A familiar old Chevie turned off the main road and rattled up the drive. Romy woofed and stuck her head out the window as Marsha Vernon, the farm’s owner and my former landlady, brought the car to a stop. She stepped down carefully on the gravel drive, using her umbrella as a walking stick.

“Susanna! I wanted to see you before you took off.” The sunlight sparkled on her coral earrings and the silver glints in her hair.

“I’m just saying goodbye,” I said.

“I’ll never understand it.” Her voice broke as she looked away from the ruins. “Who would set fire to a kennel?”

“The same monster who torched those stables in Essex and killed six horses.”

“That lowlife Tag Nolan. I hope he burns in hell.”

“Or the judge throws him in jail for a couple of decades.”

“I wish you’d change your mind and stay,” she said. “It’ll take a little time to rebuild, but by spring, you girls can be up and running again.”

I kept the bitter edge from sharpening my tone. “That won’t happen. Amy has a new partner, and I’ve already accepted a job upstate.”

“Oh, too bad. You two worked so well together. You were my best tenants. I was hoping . . .” She peered into the back seat, stroking Romy’s head, frowning. “Where are the puppies? Did you sell them?”

Frosty, Cherie, and Cindy. My two blue merles and my tri. I’d pulled them out of the flames while waiting for the pokey Fire Department to arrive, herded them to the house, and watched the blaze devour the kennel. In the end, the entire structure, even the sign cut in the shape of a collie, was gone.

But I was fortunate. My dogs were alive and Larkspur could rise again some day. Only not here and not with Amy Brackett. The tears were close again. Too close.

Susanna, don’t you cry, I thought. It’s going to be okay. Better than okay. The Kentwoods and their dogs are survivors.

“I dropped them off at a kennel yesterday,” I said. “It’s only fifteen minutes from where I’ll be staying. My new employer doesn’t mind if I bring one dog with me, but not four.”

“Then I guess we’ll see each other at the shows.”

“In Lakeville at Fairoaks, the week after Thanksgiving. I’ll be there.”

“Well . . .” She hesitated for a moment, then hugged me. “Take care of yourself, Susanna. Have a safe trip to wherever you’re heading.”

I promised to do that and said goodbye. She turned away and walked slowly up to the silent house, stabbing at the gravel with her umbrella tip.

As I inserted the key in the ignition, a twinge of pain raced down my right arm and came to rest on my fingers. I stared at my hand, at the heirloom diamond ring I always wore, at nails glossy with shell pink polish.

Not again. Not today when I had miles and miles to drive.

The burns had healed; there was no medical reason for discomfort and only the slightest trace of redness on my skin. Still, sometimes my hand hurt. When it did, my imagination yanked me back to the night of the fire. Smoke poured into my lungs again, and flames licked at my clothing. Inside the barn, the trapped dogs screamed. Panic closed its fist tightly around my throat. I couldn’t breathe through the acrid mist, couldn’t call their names, could hardly make my feet move. But I had to.

I have to save them!

I gripped the wheel and waited for the images to dissolve and the pain to subside. Romy whined softly. I glanced toward the house. Marsha had gone inside, and the ruins of Larkspur lay still and black in the sun.

Quickly I turned the ignition key and drove out to the road. Coming back to the farm had been a mistake. In approximately twenty-five minutes, with light traffic, I should reach the I-75 entrance ramp. By late afternoon I’d be settled in a borrowed country house a hundred miles away from the memories, far from the faint smell of smoke that seemed to linger in the air.

* * * *

The novelty of traveling to a new place on a perfect fall day soon cast its spell on my dark mood. I opened the window, breathed in fresh sweet air, and let the wind toss my hair into a tangle of waves. Happiness was suddenly possible again, if not imminent.

While I’d been packing suitcases and boxes in a rented gatehouse, the countryside had burst into brilliant color. When I left the freeway, I turned on a narrow byroad that meandered through endless miles of green and russet woodland. ‘Horses on the Road’ signs hinted at habitation. I didn’t see any riders but once caught a fleeting glimpse of leaping deer in the distance.

This corner of Michigan was a mix of thick woodland and vast cultivated fields with an occasional dusty hamlet thrown in to break the monotony. Horses grazed behind white paddock fences, and lakes shimmered through leafy screens. As I drove past richly embellished new structures and weathered old farmhouses with classic lines, leaves drifted through the air. They touched the windshield lightly before flying away to layer the ground.

Goldengrove unleaving, I thought. That’s Michigan in October, this enchanted month.

In a few more weeks the color show would be over, but the days were still fine with mild temperatures and sunshine. I intended to live in the present, seizing every opportunity that came my way.

Like this house sitting job. The newspapers had carried the story of the kennel fire and, later, of the arrest of prime suspect, Tag Nolan. That was how my mother’s long-lost second cousin, Valerie Lansing, found me in the old gatehouse down the road from Greengrove.

Valerie had purchased an historic house in north Lapeer County as an investment and staged it for a quick sale, never doubting that a buyer who shared her vision would snap it up. In a depressed economy, that didn’t happen. Now she was about to move to Florida for the winter and needed a trustworthy person to take care of the property in her absence. “An unattended house is an invitation to vandals,” she had said at our reunion lunch last month.

Valerie was a statuesque woman with bright chestnut hair twisted into an elegant chignon. She wore vibrant summer colors, spoke softly, and had the face of a stranger.

“I thought after that terrible fire you might want a change of scenery,” she added.

Romy lay in the doorway eyeing Valerie with an uncharacteristic wariness. The puppies were in their crates, quiet for once and out of sight. Valerie’s only acknowledgement of my collie was a terse question. “Does she chew woodwork or furniture?”

I assured her that Romy was well-mannered, and she nodded thoughtfully, smiling her approval of good canines.

“You’ll both like country living, Susanna,” she assured me. “But there’s no fenced yard. Your puppies wouldn’t be safe there.”

“I could board them. For a while. Short term only.”

“Please say you’ll come,” she said.

My duties would be simple: Keep the sparse furniture dusted and buy fresh bouquets for the front hall and dining room. A local handyman would handle leaf and snow removal.

“I’d like you to decorate the outside and maybe simmer potpourri on the stove,” she said. “Meet the neighbors. Let everybody know you live there. The location is a bit remote, but you’ll fall in love with the house, and I’ll feel better hiring somebody I know.”

“You don’t know me,” I said.

“I did—when you were a little girl. One Christmas I gave you a doll—Little Red Riding Hood. Don’t you remember?”

“I’m afraid not.”

I had vague memories of Valerie at rare lake outings, and I must have fading pictures of her in a photograph album. She was a name on a family tree. A scrawled signature on a holiday card. Not even that since my mother’s death several years ago.

But I had no recollection of a storybook doll.

She said, “Over time, relatives drift apart. That’s life. But your mother and I were close when we were young. You’re an artist too, aren’t you?”

“Sort of. I’m an art teacher without a job. My school dropped art and music from the curriculum this year and laid me off. I’d like to find another way to use my degree.”

“Maple Creek has some breathtaking scenery, especially with the leaves changing. You’ll find plenty of interesting places to paint.”

Aside from being separated from my puppies, I didn’t see a downside to Valerie’s proposition. I agreed to watch over her house as if it were my own. She gave me a ring of keys, a checkbook with a balance to cover household expenses, and her Florida address, along with the name of her real estate agent. As soon as she left, I began to pack my possessions and made arrangements to board the puppies.

Afterwards, it occurred to me that Valerie’s offer had come out of left field, rather like Valerie herself. No matter. The rent was free, the pay generous, and the work practically non-existent. As soon as the house sold, I could reclaim my pups and look for a permanent home for all of us.

The rural location was a bonus. Balsam Lane, twenty miles north of Maple Creek. I had never heard of either one. No one would know where I’d gone, not even Marsha Vernon, and certainly not Amy Brackett. Anonymity was important to me. At the time I wasn’t quite sure why.

Now, as I navigated a dizzying chain of curves through the crimson and gold wonderland, I thought I knew. The fire had been the most devastating of the misfortunes that had plagued me these past months. Every now and then, in anxious moments, I wondered if something even worse was going to happen next.

Tag Nolan, Amy, acquaintances with friendly smiles and hostile intent, or even a stranger might strike again at any time. In simpler language, I feared that someone was out to get me.

That’s because someone is. Move fast and far, and your enemy won’t find you until you’re ready to face him.

I slowed down to avoid a deep rut, averting my eyes from the dark animal body that lay motionless in my path, probably a raccoon, although it was hard to tell.

When had I become so paranoid? When my best friend betrayed me? When my boyfriend stopped calling me? When a malicious stranger set fire to the kennel? Or the day I first became aware of Amy’s vicious lies?

All of the above.

The enormity of my situation threatened to overwhelm me. To add to my discomfort, I was hungry. I steered the car to the side of the road and surveyed the remnants of my picnic basket: Two jelly doughnuts, a Hershey bar, an empty coffee mug, and a six pack of bottled water—not exactly what I wanted. When I reached the house on Balsam Lane, I’d make Romy comfortable and go out again to look for a restaurant.

* * * *

Still hungry and growing more tired with every mile, I drove slowly down the main street of Maple Creek, admiring its Norman Rockwell charm. Maple trees lined the sidewalks, their foliage as red as crackling flames. Quaint stores blended smoothly with storybook Victorian houses, and American flags flapped in the wind. The only other sound was a rustle of leaves.

Where were all the people? In those picturesque houses on streets named Walnut and Beechnut and Willow, or inside the shops? How could any place, especially the main artery of a town, be so quiet, so dead?

I saw them then. A little girl with blonde Alice-in-Wonderland hair pulling a doll in a wagon. A brawny bearded man emerging from a barbershop with a black Belgian shepherd at his heel. A red-haired woman carrying an oversized bakery box. Ah, good! Maple Creek had a bakery.

A lone traffic light blinked red. I came to a stop at the intersection. As I scanned the storefronts, hoping to see a café or pizza parlor, I noticed a vintage brick building with letters in Old English script on the front: The Blue Lion Inn. Prime Rib—Fish—Spirits.

The Blue Lion would do for dinner tonight, and if I needed a nut or bolt, its neighbor was a feed and hardware store. If I required anything more elaborate, Maple Creek probably had it tucked away in one of these little shops.

So I wasn’t really in the middle of nowhere.

Still, for the first time since I’d accepted Valerie’s offer, I had a moment of doubt. Could I adjust to life in this small northern town where the winter would be colder and snowier than the same season downstate?

You’re not going to live in town, I reminded myself. The house is twenty miles north of it.

Valerie’s homemade map lay on the seat beside me. It consisted of wavy arrows and miniature landmark sketches, all of which led to a cloud shape labeled Marble Lake. This route would take me to Hunter and from there to 7 Balsam Lane. Printed instructions filled the bottom half of the page:

Main Street turns into Hunter. Stay on Hunter until you pass the lake. In five miles, you’ll see a fork in the road. Turn on Balsam. You’re going northeast now. The house is on your right. It has blue siding and a wraparound porch. There’s a hedge and a pond in front.

When the light turned green, I drove through the intersection and promptly found myself heading out of town. Before long, I was traveling through deep country again. The land rose high on the left side and dropped down so low on the right that the treetops were level with the road. The woods were filled with pines, tall and imposing. They shadowed the way, diminished the afternoon light, and chipped away at my earlier exuberance.

Romy barked at something I couldn’t see, possibly more deer.

Onward to nowhere, I thought, resisting an irrational impulse to turn the car around and drive back to Main Street. Contrasted with this forest of giant conifers, it seemed bright and friendly.

Marble Lake, however, was a luminous body of water fringed by hardwoods wearing autumn’s vibrant colors. Beyond the lake, I saw the fork in the road and made the last turn on Balsam Lane.

Blue, porch, hedge, pond . . . I kept my eyes fixed on the right side of the road, sailing past hidden driveways, cookie cutter farmhouses, rustic mailboxes, and street numbers so far away they might as well be non-existent. At last, beyond a sharp curve, I saw a blue house.

Rather, a blue palace behind a high hedge with a pond nestled in an embrace of woods. Valerie had neglected to mention how large the house was.

“Well, we’re here, Romy,” I said. “Journey’s end.”

But I didn’t get out of the car, and Romy only yawned and pressed her nose to the window.

Our destination was a grand Victorian at least a century old, a silvery-blue, three-storied extravaganza of gables and graceful arches and windows. Besides the wraparound porch, it had two high balconies at opposite ends of the house and a tiny one in the middle. Every inch of trim dripped with gingerbread that gave the exterior the frosty appearance of a massive ice sculpture.

This is a cold house, I thought. A winter place.

Fallen leaves rose in high waves up to the foundation, hiding the walkway and steps, and trees grew close to the sides, reaching out with long branch-arms as if to catch the house in a grip of wood and imprison it forever.

What a weird notion! I’d been driving too long without proper food.

But the encroaching branches and that wild overgrown hedge inspired gruesome fancies. Apparently Valerie didn’t understand the value of curb appeal. She should have had the trees trimmed, the shrubs neatened or replaced, and, definitely, the hedge taken out. It seemed somehow sinister, a dark barrier between the house and the rest of the world.

The old Victorian itself was magnificent, however. Storybook beautiful. It needed a nineteenth-century family to fill the rooms with laughter and children to skate on the lonely pond when it froze in the winter. One woman and her dog would get lost rambling around in those dark halls.

But they wouldn’t be dark when I moved in and turned on the lights, and, of course, this wasn’t my home. I’d leave as soon as the right buyer came along, and surely that would be soon. Who would let this place languish unsold if he had the means to purchase it and a desire to live in the country?

Then . . . I imagined the house restored to its former old-century glory with light in every window to temper the ice-cold façade and a warm welcome inside for the weary traveler. Illogically, that was what I had been hoping to find at the end of my long trek north—an unknown somebody to say,

Come inside and sit by the fireplace, Susanna. Burn your troubles with the pine logs, and when you leave, you’ll be free and strong again.

Abruptly I forced myself back to reality. Nobody waited behind that massive ornamental door to greet me. I was the one hired to provide the welcome, and I would. Only . . .

My eyes swept the blue house in its wooded setting and bed of leaves, wondering what was missing. Then I knew.

There was no sign in the yard. How would anybody know that the place was for sale?

September 2008

August 2010

   
 

Reviews

   
  I really liked this story and not just because of the Collies, but that was a definite plus for me and any dog lover out there. The story is easy to follow despite a complicated backstory. Susanna is a very sympathetic character and the events that brought her to Snowhedge are very unfair. I do wish that they were resolved a little more thoroughly, particularly the stolen dog. I enjoyed the development of Mike and Susanna’s relationship and her research into the history of the house. I love a good ghost story and this one definitely qualifies. Maura - Coffee Time Romance & More
   
 

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