Read an Excerpt
Doctor Lara McInnis began the day clinging to a slender island of solace. Hours later, waves of patients, errands and phone calls had pounded against that island till it was nothing but a rubble heap. Rubbing wearily at her eyes, Lara finally gave up and closed them. For a moment or two she thought she might get away with it, but then an image of Arabel, her longtime receptionist, lying in a pool of her own blood rose out of some subterranean reservoir. The grizzly scene was so real, Lara’s stomach clenched. And then, like an unwelcome tape loop, it played again. And again. Opening her eyes didn’t help one whit. Arabel was just as bloody and just as dead.
Lara collapsed into the chair generally reserved for her patients. Outside her western window a scarlet sunset streaked the Seattle skyline, adding its bloody motif to the one already playing in her head. Disgusted with herself, she got to her feet and began pacing the length of her spacious office, burning a track in the Oriental rug. She knew she should be boxing up client files, but couldn’t force herself back to a task she was ambivalent about—at least not until she could get her emotions under better control.
The doorknob rattled. It startled her, and Lara’s heart jumped into overdrive. In her current state, the familiar sound was like a reproach. “How could I not have locked it with everything that’s going on?” she muttered as she rushed into the outer office. Arabel’s desk, another Oriental rug and ornate Victorian furniture with floral upholstery flashed past the edges of her vision, but she was focused on the door as she watched the knob slowly turning.
This is ridiculous, she told herself. It’s probably a pharmaceutical salesman thinking I’m a psychiatrist.
Or that demon that’s been dogging you, a darker inner voice insinuated.
Since the only other option was throwing herself out a second-story window and hoping for the best, Lara crossed the few feet to the door and yanked it open. A decidedly overweight woman jerked her hand away from the doorknob and eyed Lara balefully out of rheumy, blue eyes. Pale brown hair, going gray, was gathered into an untidy bun, and fat rolls bulged over too-tight jeans and under an inadequate T-shirt.
“Missus Stone.” Lara tried to smile as she coaxed her heart back to a normal rhythm.
“Hmmmmph, surprised you remember me.”
“Of course I do.” Lara stepped aside, gesturing for the woman to enter. The last thing she wanted was another patient visit, but it would verge on the unethical—never mind the rude—to ask Myra Stone to go away without at least finding out what she wanted.
Lara waited while Myra stalked past her, looked inside the inner office and circled back to stand in front of Lara, hands on her hips. “Guess she’s not here,” Myra snapped as she sat down in one of the reception chairs.
“If you’re looking for Caren, no; she’s not,” Lara agreed, mystified. “Is your stepdaughter missing?”
The woman grunted. She still had an expression on her face that could curdle milk, but she knotted her fingers together and said, “How about if you sit down, and you and me can have a little talk?”
“Okay.” Lara kept her voice as neutral as she could, pulled the office door shut—taking care to lock it this time—and rolled Arabel’s chair out. Her butt had barely grazed the seat cushion when the woman started talking.
“I don’t think spending time here is helping Caren. Nope, not at all,” Myra complained in an unpleasant, nasal twang. “I never know where she is. She’s still taking what doesn’t belong to her; and that father of hers, well he’s not any help at all. So it’s just me.” Accusatory eyes drilled into Lara. “All my real kids turned out fine. This one, she’s just a bad seed.” Rooting around in a battered handbag, Myra pulled out a cigarette. “Do you mind?”
“Uh, yes; I’d prefer you didn’t smoke,” Lara managed, struck by the gall of the woman and offended to hear her belittle her stepdaughter so blatantly. Caren had said Myra hated her, but Lara had assumed it was just teenaged hyperbole.
Myra stuffed the cigarette into her T-shirt pocket and pushed her bulk upright. “Not much reason for me to stay,” she muttered. “Really thought she’d be here. You’re the only one she ever says anything good about.”
If she felt like one of your real kids, maybe she’d say good things about you—or feel safe enough to love you . . . Discouraged by the woman’s callousness—after all, Caren had been through hell in her sixteen years—Lara stood, too. Trying for a positive spin, she said, “You must be concerned, or you wouldn’t have come looking for Caren. Would you like to make an appointment, Missus Stone? I already told you on the phone I’m closing my practice, but I’d be glad to find a time slot for you in the next couple of weeks. We could talk about some of the challenges of step-parenting and how hard it is for abused children to learn to trust—”
“Nah.” Myra waved her to silence. “Hell, my uncle did me and I didn’t turn out like her. I didn’t cut school or steal stuff. Or carve on myself.” Shuffling over to the door, she pulled it open and stalked out into the hall, the tiny chink in her armor replaced by a brittle, defensive anger.
“Well, think about it,” Lara persisted, addressing the woman’s back as Myra headed for a stairwell. Drawing the door shut behind her, she retreated to her office, thinking that Myra could do with a smattering of psychotherapy herself. Yeah, like about ten years worth. Crimson from the sunset bled through stained-glass windows, casting her familiar furniture in an eerie light. Lara wrapped her arms around herself, seeking the warmth of her own body for comfort.
That poor child . . . From abusive kin to a stepmother who doesn’t want her. Sorrow for Caren replaced the Arabel tape loop as color faded from the room. Lara decided it was an improvement, all in all, and she kicked a box over a few inches so she could open the lower drawer of her filing cabinet. Pushing her long red hair back over her shoulders, she proceeded to dump banded files into the banker’s box without any particular regard for order.
The outer door of her office rattled again. This time, though, it was a key sound.
“In here, Trev,” she called back, straightening to greet her longtime boyfriend.
Trevor, his usually buoyant mood notably subdued, held out his arms. “‘Lo, Lara. Sorry I’m a bit late but . . . well, never mind; it will keep.” He scanned the room with his intensely blue eyes, taking in her half-finished packing job. “How much more . . .” he began tentatively as he put his arms round her for a hug.
Shooting him a look laced with pain, she shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m doing this as fast as I can in between seeing patients who want a last session or two. Thank god Arabel started calling all of them before . . .”
His arms tightened around her. “Doesn’t matter, love. It’ll be done eventually.” Blonde curls brushing against her face, he kneaded her shoulders with both hands. “Bloody hell, you’re wound up tighter than a spring.” The familiar clipped tones of his British accent washed over her like a balm.
“Feels heavenly,” she breathed. “I didn’t realize how . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“Well, maybe I did, but I’ve been forcing myself not to pay attention.” She pulled away, sinking onto the floral couch spanning part of one wall. Exhaustion dragged at her as she dropped her head into her hands, rocking slightly.
Pushing a couple of boxes out of the way, Trevor joined her. “I miss Arabel, too, you know.” There was a catch in his voice that he tried to clear away. “Any of those ready to take home?” he asked, pointing at the half dozen boxes littering the floor.
“Yeah, those three.” She jabbed her index finger at a corner of the room. “They’re records from patients I haven’t seen in at least a couple of years.”
“What are you going to do with the others?” His voice was gentle, but he placed a finger under her chin, forcing her to look at him. “What are you saving them for?”
“Guess I can’t very well keep any of them,” she muttered. “It’s not like we’re even going to be here after a little while.”
“No,” he agreed solemnly. “It’s not. And we’re not.”
Pursing her lips into a thin line, she found her feet. “Okay, then,” she snapped, angry with the universe that seemed to be stealing her life away. Pulling open file drawers, she grabbed a few charts and dumped them onto her desk. “I need these since I’m not quite done with these people, but all the rest can go.”
Nodding, Trevor joined her in front of the twin horizontal files, and together they began to move twenty years worth of Lara’s psychology practice into the waiting cartons. “You’ll need more boxes,” he noted after a few minutes. “Lots more.”
“Thought we could fill these, dump them at home, and then I’d just bring the empties back tomorrow and begin all over.”
“Ah, brilliant. Of course; that’s the obvious thing to do.” Grunting, he shouldered a box and headed for the door. “I’ll be back directly for another.”
“Right behind you,” she said, picking up a box. “I do feel better when I’m doing something other than wallowing in my own misery.”
“That’s my girl,” he shot back over his shoulder.
The minute Trevor opened the door of his old Mercedes convertible, Gunter, their eleven-week-old German Shepherd lunged out of the car, making a beeline for Lara. The little black puppy yipped, whined and launched himself at her, pulling at her wool skirt with his claws. “There, there, little man,” she cooed, putting her box down so she could unhook his feet from the fabric of her skirt. “Yes, yes; I’ve missed you, too.”
As she fondled the puppy, she glanced at Trevor. Dressed in faded blue jeans, a green chambray shirt and a tan corduroy blazer, his tall, lanky frame exuded its usual casual elegance. “How’d your day go?” she asked.
“Not bad,” he replied, shoving his box of files into the car’s small trunk and reaching for the one she’d set on the sidewalk. “We’ll have to put the rest in your car, love. No more room in here.” He slammed the car’s boot. “I started really taking stock of what’s in our house . . . and making lists. Went down to the waterfront, too.” His lips curved wryly. “Didn’t find much in the way of antique farm equipment, but I did get some leads. Bloke at the flea market looked at me as if I were daft.”
She flashed him a weak smile. “Well, dear, I suppose it’s not every day they get customers hunting for scythes, or whatever it was you asked for.”
“Let’s get those other boxes down here. Then we can walk the pup before we go home.”
Lara inclined her head and turned to go back into her building. Lucky for us the electricity’s not on the fritz. It’s almost dark out here. Power outages had been hit-and-miss. More often than not, she’d had to use a flashlight to find her way out of her building. Back in the office, she continued throwing files willy-nilly into the boxes she’d bought earlier that day. An orderly part of her rebelled when she looked at the files, no longer alphabetized, lying on their sides like beached whales. “It doesn’t matter,” she muttered fiercely. “All we’re going to do is burn them.”
She remembered something Raven had told her. Your thought patterns are still trapped in your old life. That is what has brought modern civilization to the brink of extinction: an intransigent unwillingness to change anything.
As she thought about Raven, a vision of the tall, broad-shouldered Sidhe with his flowing black hair filled her mind; and the amulet Lillian had given her, nestled between her breasts on its golden chain, thrummed approvingly. Lara grasped the moonstone through the fabric of her teal silk blouse, enjoying its warmth. Raven and Lillian: two ancient creatures, somehow alive and well in the early years of the twenty-first century. Doesn’t matter why or how, I’m just glad they’re here, helping us.
Trevor strode back into her inner office. “Got another box ready?” he asked, looking confused. “I know you told me earlier, but I don’t remember.”
“Uh-huh.” She crooked a finger off to the side. “That one. I’ll just finish this one and cart it out. Then there’ll only be two more to fill and we can head home.”