A Christmas Love

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Divorce forced Carolyn Robards and her daughter to move back to the summer family home.  It had been closed up so long that something had moved into the basement… Something big.

When longtime neighbor John Clayton Traynor visited his new neighbors, he was put to work… checking the basement.

What they found was bigger than a possum and had far more complicated implications. Carolyn needed to pray for a Christmas miracle, and perhaps, because of John Clayton’s help… a Christmas love.

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CHAPTER 1

CAROLYN ROBARDS SAT in the silent car and watched oak leaves scuttle across the open porch. Like mice, she thought, frightened away by unexpected arrivals.

“It’s creepy,” her daughter Jordy complained. “I don’t remember it being like this, all cold and bare.”

Carolyn said cheerfully, “We were always here in summer before, honey. This is December. It’s supposed to be cold and bare in the wintertime.”

“Maybe it’ll snow,” Jordy said hopefully. Her thirteen winters had mostly been spent in Southern California, and snow was still a source of entertainment to her.

“I don’t think it snows much around here,” Carolyn told her. “This is the South, after all.” She turned to look into the back seat. “How’s Harriet?”

“Drunk as a skunk,” Jordy reported, after a brief glance beneath the towel covering the cat carrier. “Her eyes look all weird.”

“Let’s leave her in the car, then, while we unload.” Carolyn opened the car door and the December cold came inside.

“It sure feels cold enough to snow,” Jordy grumbled as she gathered up her assortment of electronic devices, snacks, and pillows she considered essential for surviving car trips with her mother. She paused to add in an aggrieved tone, “If we have to be someplace away from home for Christmas, it seems like it could at least snow.”

Christmas. Carolyn took a deep breath, inhaling the rich brown smells of moist earth and decaying leaves and remarked, “If it’s snow you want, you can always go to Aspen with your dad.”

From the back seat came a snort. “Yeah, right. And the Strawberry Tart? No thanks.”

“Jordy!” Carolyn barely managed to cover a gust of shocked laughter. Valiantly she put on her sternest expression and in her “I’m your mother and I’m not fooling around” voice warned, “I won’t have you talking about Crissy like that. After all,” she added, trying out the words for the first time, “she’s probably going to be your stepmother eventually.”

“Ooh, goody,” Jordy cooed as she yanked open her door. “Then I’ll have somebody close to my own age to play with.” The sarcasm was punctuated by the slamming of the car door and the crunch and swish of angry footsteps.

Carolyn fought down shameful bubbles of laughter, knowing it wasn’t really funny, and that, unlike her own, Jordy’s wounds hadn’t yet begun to heal. She stayed where she was for a moment longer to watch her daughter plow through drifts of oak and poplar leaves, adolescent clumsy in her jeans and Nikes and hot-pink ski jacket, blond, baby-silk hair still retaining the warm glow of the California sun.

Maternal love rushed stinging to the backs of her eyelids. Oh Russell, she thought, feeling no rage at all, feeling only tired remnants of the grief that had evolved long ago into a strange kind of compassion. You poor idiot. You have no idea, do you, what you’ve thrown away.

Jordy was calling impatiently from the porch. Carolyn twisted around to look once more at the tranquilized cat, still crouched in her carrier, staring with glassy intensity at nothing, then got out of the car and went to unlock the trunk.

“You start bringing things in,” she instructed as she joined Jordy at the front door. “I want to make sure we’ve got power and propane while it’s still light.” The assortment of keys gave way to the right one, and the knob turned. The door creaked inward upon the cold, lonely odors of mildew and mice.

“Oh yuck,” Jordy said, wrinkling her nose.

Carolyn said briskly, “Well, what do you expect? It’s probably been years since anyone’s been in here.” She stepped into the kitchen, footsteps crackling on warped linoleum, and put her car keys and purse gingerly down on the chrome and Formica tabletop. On her left, just as she remembered, were the metal sink and fifties-style appliances. To the right was the “living room,” dark and charmless with its bank of small-paned windows overlooking the front porch, and only a department-store braided rug to give it warmth and set it off from the unpartitioned kitchen.

With all the enthusiasm of one entering a bat-infested cave, Jordy followed her. “Looks more like a century. I thought you said the neighbors were looking after it. Mom, are we really going to stay here? This place is a dump.”

“Oh, honey, it’s not so bad.” Carolyn straightened her shoulders as she looked around in the dim, wintry light, giving herself the appearance, at least, of self-assurance. “It’ll warm right up once we get the power turned on and the furnace lit. The smell will go away after a while. It’s just that old empty house smell.”

It wouldn’t, though. In all the summers they’d spent here, no matter how she’d scrubbed, cleaned, laundered, and disinfected, she’d never been able to get rid of that smell. It was buried deep in the wallboard, the wood, in the cupboards and pipes, in the fibers of that awful old rug she’d hated the moment she’d laid eyes on it, and which Russell would never hear of replacing. It was the smell of the heat and damp of fifty South Carolina summers and the emptiness and abandonment of fifty winters. The smell of a house that had never been anyone’s home.

“Mom,” Jordy said, her tone outraged and accusing, “there’s no TV.”

“We’ll buy one,” Carolyn promised. “A small one. Though as I recall, there wasn’t much to see. I wonder if cable’s gotten this far…” She tried a light switch. “Damn—the breakers must be off. I’ll go check the box. It’s around back. While I’m doing that you can be getting a load out of the car. Go on, hurry up.”

“I bet there’s spiders in there,” Jordy said with a sniff as she peered into one of the three shadowy doorways that opened off the living room. “And mice.”

“Well then,” Carolyn remarked lightly, but with waning patience, “maybe you should bring Harriet in.”

“Harriet is eighty-seven years old in cat years,” Jordy shot back. “How would you like to have to kill mice if you were eighty-seven?”

Carolyn gave her daughter’s flushed face and too-bright eyes a glance. All she said was, “Let’s get busy, shall we? You can put your things down right here for now, on this table. It doesn’t look too dusty.”

But outside in the cold shade of the abbreviated December afternoon she blinked away tears, wondering what had happened to her relationship with her only child. It wasn’t just that Jordy was growing up, changing before her eyes, she knew that. It was something missing in her. In his abdication Russell had stolen something precious from her, and she didn’t know how to get it back.

The fuse box was on the downhill side of the house, on the wall next to the basement door. Rounding the corner of the house, Carolyn stopped suddenly, distracted by the unexpected glimmer of sun-shot water through the skeletons of trees. Strange—she hadn’t realized before that the lake could be seen from here. In the lazy, humid depths of summer the woods had always seemed to enfold the little house like sheltering wings, giving it a coziness and sense of security she now knew she’d been looking forward to. Instead, here were unexpected vistas of lemony sky and sun-dappled water, a bright, beckoning world beyond the lacy black curtain of winter branches. She didn’t know whether to rejoice, or be sorry.

Familiar scufflings drew her attention, and she watched a squirrel go bounding through the leaves and up the trunk of a nearby hickory tree. From the topmost branches she could hear it scolding in fear and foolish bravado. Silly creature, she thought, recalling that Russell had used that very sound to locate squirrels so he could shoot them with his twenty-two.

She heard other scuffles much closer by, and realized with a small jolt of uneasiness that the basement door was slightly ajar. On tiptoe she stepped up to it and gave it a tentative push, like one touching a hot surface. The scuffles, furtive, panicky, and unmistakable, came again. She jumped back, then hovered there, rooted in indecision. Beyond her own dry mouth and pounding heart her senses gave her an odd impression of something crouched, waiting…frozen in terror and dread.

“What’s going on?” Jordy, her natural buoyancy restored, had come crunching up with the cat in her arms, in blithe ignorance of any sinister auras.

Carolyn gave a short, relieved laugh, indefinably bolstered by the presence of another person, even a small one. “I don’t know. I think there’s something in the basement.”

“No kidding,” Jordy said in an awed voice, “look at Harriet. She’s freaking out, Mom.” It was, for her, a fairly mild exaggeration. A low, feline growl issuing from the cat’s throat lifted the fine hairs on Carolyn’s arms.

She murmured dryly, “Good thing she’s still tranquilized.” The cat was staring fixedly at the half-open doorway, her eyes fully dilated, round and dark as ripe currants.

Jordy peered over Harriet’s head, her own blue stare avidly mimicking the cat’s. “What do you think it is, Mom?”

Carolyn gave an offhand shrug. “Oh, I don’t know, probably just a raccoon or a possum.” But she edged carefully away from the open doorway, just in case. “Either one would make short work of a cat, though, even one who isn’t eighty-seven years old and drunk as a skunk. So you’d better keep a good tight grip on her. Better yet, take her in the house.”

“What are you going to do?”

“About whatever’s in there?” Carolyn gave a shuddering laugh. “Well, I’m not going in after it, that’s for sure. For right now we’ll just— We’ll leave the door open, that’s what we’ll do. Whatever it is,” she added firmly as she turned back to the fuse box, “I’m sure it’s going to be only too happy to leave, now that we’re here.”

She pulled the breaker switch and heard the stutter and hum of power returning to the various appliances scattered through the house, the grinding whine of the water pump starting up over in the well shed. Relief flooded her. At least everything seemed to be in working order.

From the murky depths of the basement there was only silence.

“Mom,” Jordy said in an uncharacteristically subdued voice, “do we have to stay here? Can’t we go to a motel or something, just for tonight?”

For a moment Carolyn hesitated, keeping her back to her child, her eyes on the metal fuse box. For a moment she let herself think about it, the antiseptic austerity of a motel room, safe and familiar; the lighted bustle of a restaurant dining room, the warm, cholesterol-rich smells of charbroiled meat and French fries. At last she said without emotion, “Now what would be the point in that? We’d just have to go through all this again tomorrow.”

Jordy said nothing as she sullenly watched the toe of her Nike scrape a trench in the damp red ground. Then she blurted out, “I know why we had to leave California. It’s because of the money, isn’t it? We don’t have enough money since Dad—”

“We have plenty of money,” Carolyn said calmly. “Just not enough for California. It will cost us a lot less to live here, Jordy, I explained that. This house is all ours, so we don’t have to pay rent or a mortgage while I’m writing my book. And after that—”

“Yeah, Mom, what about after that? What are you going to do, get a job?”

“Well, you needn’t say it like that.” Carolyn gave a short laugh, then glanced at her daughter and said with a casual shrug, “I might go back into practice.”

Jordy snorted. “Yeah, right, Mom. Who’s going to go to a marriage counselor who’s been divorced?”

“Ooh, smarty pants,” Carolyn said lightly. “Did your father tell you that?”

“No,” Jordy retorted in an insulted tone, “I thought that up all by myself. What Dad said was, nobody in the South would ever admit to being messed up enough to need a shrink. Mom, don’t you think it’s weird?”

“What is?” Carolyn said gently, because with the question Jordy’s tone and expression had abruptly switched from nasty smart-aleck to bewildered child, a transformation Carolyn had seen all too many times lately.

“Dad’s the one that’s from South Carolina, but he’s in California and we’re here. It’s not fair.”

“Fair’s got nothing to do with it. A little ironic, maybe.” She put her arm around Jordy’s shoulders and gave them a reassuring squeeze. “Listen, your dad doesn’t like to be reminded that he came from a small Southern town, which is why he was happy to let me have this house as part of the divorce settlement. It’s going to work out very well for us, you’ll see. It’s going to be all right.”

“I just wish it wasn’t Christmas,” Jordy said in a mournful tone, burying her face in Harriet’s fur. “It doesn’t seem like Christmas here.”

“Oh, I know,” Carolyn said with a wry smile. “How can it be Christmas without eighty-degree, forty-mile-an-hour Santa Ana winds blowing Christmas trees all over the parking lots?”

“There were decorations up in the malls,” said Jordy wistfully.

“Well, we’ll just have to put up some decorations of our own. I know there’s holly in the woods. I used to blunder into it all the time. We’ll pick some—you know, ‘Deck the Halls’? And tomorrow morning first thing we’ll go over and say hello to our neighbors—that’ll help. You’ll like the Traynors. They’re everyone’s idea of the perfect grandparents. They have this lovely little farm, just like a picture book, with a big barn and all sorts of animals.”

“I remember,” Jordy said suddenly. “Sort of. I remember every time we went over to visit, Mrs. Traynor would tell me to go out and gather the eggs, like it was some great privilege, or something.”

“It was. You used to love doing it.”

Jordy shrugged. “Yeah, well, I was little then. Dumb things like that are fun when you’re little.”

Carolyn didn’t answer. Defeated, she let her arm drop away from Jordy’s shoulders, and they trudged up the hill together, side by side, in silence.

* * *

A pale haze lay soft on the lake when Carolyn stepped outside the next morning. The air was cold and smelled of wood smoke, and from somewhere far off a mourning dove was calling, evocative as a train whistle in the night.

She found Jordy standing motionless on the porch, shoulders hunched with the unaccustomed cold, hands withdrawn inside the sleeves of her pink jacket, puffs of breath feathering into the quiet air.

“Ready to go?” she asked as she hastily zipped up her own jacket. “Did you eat breakfast?”

“I had some Cheerios,” Jordy said without turning. And then, in the carefully toneless voice she used when she didn’t want to sound excited, “Mom, what kind of bird is that? Over there in the bushes—that red one. Is that a cardinal?”

“Oh!” Carolyn gave a little gasp of delight. “Yes, it is. I’ll bet you’ve never seen one, have you? They don’t have cardinals in California.”

“Yeah, well, I bet they don’t have condors in South Carolina,” Jordy muttered, making it just loud enough for her mother to hear. She was in a bad mood this morning, even for Jordy.

Carolyn sighed inwardly and clumped down the steps, saying brightly, “You know, I used to have a book of all the trees and birds and animals in this part of the country. I’ll bet it’s still here somewhere. I’ll look for it when we get back. Then we can look up all the different things we see, learn their names. Won’t that be fun?”

“I’m not really into bird-watching, Mom,” Jordy said with withering scorn.

Carolyn folded her arms across her middle and bit down on her lower lip and they crunched down the driveway in silence. After a while she cleared her throat and tried again. “How’s Harriet this morning?”

“Hiding in the closet,” Jordy muttered, watching her feet turn cold-crisped leaves to brown dust.

“Well, that’s normal, especially after she kept us awake all night growling and stalking whatever’s in the basement. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her act like that before.”

“Except around dogs,” Jordy reminded her. “She hates dogs. If there’s one within two miles, she gets all wild-eyed and weird, and her hair stands on end, just like last night. I’ll bet anything that’s what’s down there, Mom. I’ll bet it’s a stupid dog.”

“Now what would a dog be doing in our basement?” Carolyn said logically. “There’s nobody around to feed it. I’m sure it’s just a possum or a raccoon. Harriet’s never met either one before, so to her it would probably smell like some exotic breed of dog. Anyway, since she’s sleeping now, that probably means it’s gone. We’ll look when we get back. Oops—let’s turn here. Don’t you remember? There’s a shortcut.”

Without protest or reply, Jordy veered to the right. The gravel track that wound away through the woods was badly overgrown, pocked with dormant anthills and treacherous with hickory nuts and acorns. Thorny tentacles of wild berry vines caught at their pant legs, and branches left dusty remnants of last summer’s spider webs in their hair.

“This path used to go to Miss Leona’s cabin,” Carolyn said, panting a little from the slightly uphill climb. “It doesn’t look as if it’s been used for quite a while. I guess Miss Leona must have died. She was very old.”

“I remember her,” Jordy said grudgingly. “She was that little tiny black lady, wasn’t she? And she lived in this little tiny cabin with a wood stove. Dad took me to see her once, and she made us lunch. She cooked it on this big stove, and it was so hot in there we almost died. She kind of reminded me of a bird.”

“What else do you remember?” Carolyn asked, pleased to have finally gotten that much response.

“I remember—”

Jordy was walking along with her head down, forehead furrowed, so it was Carolyn who saw the man first. He was some way off, on the hillside across the narrow gulley that ran down to the cove, the gulley that separated her property from the Traynors’, standing among the cold black skeletons of trees, so tall and thin and still he might have been one of them.

“—Dad and I used to go walking in the woods. I remember I used to pick flowers, and acorns. And sometimes we’d go along the lake, and we used to find these little tiny clams…”

Jordy’s voice faded. For Carolyn, the air had suddenly grown warm and humid, and smelled of summer rain.

He was braced comfortably on the steep slope as if in arrested stride, downhill leg straight, uphill leg bent, one hand resting on the bent knee, head turned to watch her. He seemed as relaxed on that mountainside as a stag in the forest. As if, she thought, he owned the forest and everything that was in it, as if he knew exactly where his place on this earth was, and would always be.

“Mom?”

Carolyn felt a jab in her ribs and looked down, frowning. “What?”

“Who is that? Is he our neighbor?”

“I don’t know,” Carolyn murmured, half to herself. “I suppose he must be. Maybe one of the Traynors. They had a bunch of kids.”

“Well, why were you staring at him like that?”

“Staring? I was not.”

“Yes you were, Mom. Like you’d seen a ghost, or something.”

Carolyn shrugged. “Well, if I was, it was only because—” Because for a moment I thought I knew him. But she didn’t say that, because deja vu was such an ephemeral thing, and trying to explain it was like telling someone about a dream when the memory of it was already fading. “Because I didn’t expect to see anyone here,” she finished. “That’s all.”

“He’s just watching us,” Jordy said in an undertone. “Don’t you think we should wave, or something?”

“Uh, yes, I suppose we should.” This was the rural South, after all, where people waved at each other when they met in their cars on the road.

“Well, I’m going to,” Jordy said, and gave a huge, uninhibited child’s wave.

After a moment’s hesitation the man lifted a hand in acknowledgment, then came on down the hill. Carolyn saw that he carried a rifle loosely cradled in the crook of one arm.

“’Mornin’,” he called, nodding politely as he came toward them. His head was bare, his jacket unbuttoned. Under it he wore a brown plaid flannel shirt, and jeans tucked into the tops of leather boots. He looked freshly shaven and his brown hair was cut short and neatly combed. All in all there was nothing special about him, really, although something—maybe the steely, glint-eyed gaze or the rolling, sort of bow-legged walk—reminded Carolyn of someone, a movie star whose name she couldn’t at the moment recall.

Maybe, she thought, that’s all it was.

But if it was a movie she was remembering, why had she smelled it? Why had she felt it so unmistakably…the soft and sweltering embrace of summer?

“Good morning,” she and Jordy both called out in response, drawing unconsciously closer together in the presence of the stranger.

They met on the footbridge at the bottom of the gulley.

“I’m your neighbor, John Clayton Traynor.” Clay shifted his rifle to his left hand and held out his right, smiling a big, good-neighborly smile that felt about as comfortable to him as a pair of three-dollar shoes. “Folks generally call me Clay.”

“Mr. Traynor.” The woman’s hand was stiff and cool, and so was her voice. Pure California. “How nice to meet you. I’m Carolyn Robards, and this is my daughter, Jordan.” She let go of his hand as quickly as she could and used it to haul the kid up beside her, kind of like calling up reinforcements, Clay thought. From the kid he had a brief impression of California-cutie looks—blond hair, blue eyes, and winter tan spoiled by a sulky, sullen mouth—before the mother’s polite voice continued, “We were just on our way over to say hello to John and Hannah Lee. I guess that would be—”

“My folks, yes,” Clay helpfully confirmed, still trying to be neighborly. “They’re gone now, though. I live on the place with—”

Lines of acute distress appeared between Mrs. Robards’ eyebrows, like wrinkles in silk. “Oh,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

“Not dead, just gone” Clay said kindly. “Dad got tired of farming and Mom’s arthritis was getting worse, so they moved to Arizona and took up golf.”

“I’m so glad,” she breathed, her forehead smoothing out again. “I mean—I am disappointed they’re gone. I was looking forward to seeing them again. I’ll miss them.”

It made him warm up to her quite a bit, knowing she’d thought so much of his mom and dad. He let his voice show it, and his smile grew less strained. “Well, don’t worry, they’ll be coming for Christmas.” There was an awkward pause. Clay shifted and said, “It’s a good thing I decided to take the shortcut, or I guess we’d have missed each other. I was just on my way over to see if you folks needed anything.”

The woman shook her head. Straight, heavy brown hair with streaks of sunshine gold in it bowed against, then brushed the tops of her shoulders. “That’s very nice of you,” she said in that cool, polite California voice. “But we don’t need a thing. We’re fine. Thank you.”

Clay cleared his throat, any warm feelings he’d been starting to have cooling off again in a hurry. He was wondering what he was going to say next when he remembered the foil-wrapped package tucked inside the front of his jacket. He pulled it out and handed it to her with a careless shrug.

“Well, Miss Leona was worried about you,” he said. “Sent you some of her fresh-baked…uh, biscuits.”

“Miss Leona!” Carolyn Robards cried, smiling unexpectedly. “Oh—then she’s still alive? I thought surely—”

Clay suddenly found himself looking at a stunningly beautiful woman. He sucked in air as if a sweet spring wind had hit him full in the face and managed to mumble, “Oh yes, ma’am, she’s very much alive.”

“But I thought, since the road was so overgrown—”

“Her cabin burned down last winter.”

“Oh, how awful.” She was frowning again.

“She lives with me now.”

And the smile reappeared, just like the sun after a spring squall. “Oh, that’s nice.”

It was her eyes, he decided. Well, maybe her mouth, too. Wide-set hazel eyes touched with the same gold that was in her hair. A curiously unformed, almost childlike mouth, with a full upper lip that had very little indentation in it. Somehow those two features combined to give her a look of…well, hopefulness, a kind of wistful joy that tugged at his heart in unexpected ways.

Also unexpected was the way she kept looking at him, in a puzzled, searching way, as if she didn’t know what to make of him, or was trying to think where she’d seen him before. Maybe that was what got him to wondering, too. Because all at once he found himself spinning backward through fourteen years of memory to the summer before he’d left to go North, the last summer of freedom before college, and Gillian. It was a sensation a lot like falling down a rabbit hole. It had been a long, long time, and he couldn’t for the life of him remember—

It took a pointed “Ahem!” from behind Carolyn Robards to remind Clay that there were three people on the footbridge. He glanced at the kid standing there at her mother’s elbow, shifted uneasily and said, “Well.”

Carolyn cleared her throat and threw her daughter a quick, almost furtive glance, then looked down at her feet and jammed her hands into her coat pockets. At about the level of her shoulder, a pair of steady blue eyes were blatantly giving him the once over, and with a look Clay Traynor knew well. It was the street-tough, punk-kid look that says, Listen, mister, I’ve heard everything you’ve got to say, and don’t believe a word of it.

Clay’s good-ol’-boy Southern charm was a thin veneer at best, and it wouldn’t take much from a smart-mouth kid to wear clear through it. He could feel his smile stiffening up and starting to slip already, so he nodded and murmured politely, “Well, ma’am, as long as you don’t need anything…”

He’d turned and was about to make good his escape when the kid blurted out, “There’s something in our basement.”

He turned back, his boots scraping on the rough log planks of the bridge. Mrs. Robards was shaking her head, making motions with her hand as if to erase her daughter’s words from the air. “Oh, no, really, I’m sure it’s nothing. Just a possum, or a raccoon.”

“Personally,” the girl said, affecting boredom now that she had his attention, “I think it’s just a dog.”

Clay frowned. “Whether it’s a dog or a possum, it’d be dangerous cornered. You say it’s in your basement?”

The girl shrugged. “Well, something is.”

“I’d better have a look,” Clay said in a resigned tone, and clumped back down the bridge toward the Robards side. The two women scrunched against the handrails to let him pass, then fell in behind him.

“If you’re sure you don’t mind,” Carolyn said when they were on solid ground, a little out of breath from hurrying to catch up with him.

Clay glanced down at the top of her head, then quickly away again, surprised by a bump in his breathing. He coughed and said without expression, “No, ma’am, of course I don’t mind. It’s what I came over here for, to see if you needed any help.”

“What are you going to do, shoot it?”

The kid had moved up on his left. He looked down and met her bright, avid stare, ignoring Carolyn’s soft, dismayed, “Jordan—”

“With this?” he drawled, hefting his dad’s old hunting rifle. “Honey, this thing ain’t even loaded. All us Southern country rednecks take guns when we go out walkin’ in the woods, don’t you know that? It’s kind of a cultural thing— maybe even genetic.”

From Carolyn’s direction came a gust of startled laughter, quickly smothered. Clay felt an odd sort of lightness inside his chest, and realized—much to his surprise—that he’d like very much to join in with that laughter. But the kid was still giving him that measuring, skeptical stare, and he didn’t like to let go of it. He wasn’t sure why. He sure as hell didn’t feel like he had anything to prove, especially not to a smart-mouthed kid.

“I’m sorry,” Carolyn said huskily, but her lips were still quivering and her eyes shining with that held-back laughter. He found himself wondering what it was about his remark that had tickled her so; it hadn’t been that funny.

“Mr. Traynor—” She stumbled, and his hand shot out automatically to steady her.

“Call me Clay,” he growled impatiently. But he’d liked the feel of her elbow in his hand.

Miss Leona, he said to himself, what in the world are you trying to do to me? The last thing in the world I need in my life is a divorced woman with a smart-mouthed kid.

Nobody said anything more until they got to the Robards place. Then Carolyn muttered, sort of self-consciously, “It’s around back, down here,” and went slip-sliding around the corner of the house.

Clay followed, pausing to take in the nice view of the lake and the pair of Canadian geese he could see settling onto the surface of it. When he caught up with Mrs. Robards she was standing in front of the basement door, her head turned toward him, an odd, troubled look on her face.

“It’s shut,” she said in a hushed voice. “I’m sure I left it open last night.”

“Draft probably blew it shut.” Clay reached past her and turned the doorknob. But it occurred to him as he pushed the door open on its stiff, rusty hinges that it would have had to be one heck of a draft for that to happen.

He looked down at Carolyn and said softly, “Ma’am?” She sidestepped hastily out of his way.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” the smart mouthed kid asked him, strolling up with her hands in her hip pockets.

Clay ignored her and went on squinting into the darkness beyond the doorway.

“Who knows,” the girl said in a hushed, gleeful voice, “maybe it’s a bear, or a mountain lion in there.”

He threw her a look over his shoulder. She was all wide-eyed innocence, but with a gleam in those baby blues that suggested it might please her greatly if there was a bear in the basement, especially since he’d told her his gun wasn’t loaded.

“There’s worse things,” he muttered, and stepped into the gloom.

Inside the door he paused, listening. He couldn’t hear a thing, not even the telltale scurryings of mice. But he could feel his heart pounding, and he could feel the cold, clammy film of sweat on his forehead. Easy, he said to himself. Take it easy.

The basement was large, covering the whole length of the house and dug back into the side of the hill. In the half-darkness he could see that it held a number of unidentifiable objects big enough to hide undesirable creatures of varying sizes, including bears, or worse. Wishing he had a flashlight, he leaned against the wall and shut his eyes while he waited for his night vision to take effect.

It was a mistake. The minute he closed his eyes his ears filled with sounds: city sounds, distant and muted—horns honking, voices calling, sirens wailing; the small, crisp, close-up sounds of tension and stealth—water dripping, the betraying creak of a floorboard, the sounds of frightened breathing. His nostrils were filled with the oily, fetid smells of poverty, of too many people crammed into too little space. He heard a baby crying down a dark hallway, smelled cooking, and human waste. He felt his heart pounding, and the cold trickle of sweat between his shoulder blades.

He fought to open his eyes, but they refused to obey him. Against the backs of his eyelids he saw the room clearly, as clearly as the image on a television screen, just like the one that had been there that morning. In its flickering silver light he saw the pallet on the floor, the pile of blankets, the meager, pitiful Christmas tree. And just beyond it, the shadow on the wall, the shadow in the shape of a head, shoulders, arm…and a hand holding a gun.

His own gun was heavy in his hand. His finger was on the trigger, sweat-slippery but steady. His jaws ached with tension. Come on…come on… His finger tightened, a heartbeat away…

Nausea overwhelmed him. Ice-cold and trembling, he fought free of the nightmare, groping for the basement doorway like a drowning man reaching for the light.