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