Thursday, October 21st, 6:04 p.m.
Ever since Erin Shanley was seven years old, the street signs on the block where she lived had read--not Oring Street--but BOring Street. Some funny kid had painted the little white "B" on the green signs at each corner, and, twenty one years later, Erin could only guess that everyone who lived in the area agreed with the assessment. In all the time since the graffiti had made an appearance, no one had ever complained to the Briar's Point Street Department to have it removed.
Erin sighed as she turned her car onto Oring Street, unsure why most days she barely noticed the defacement anymore. On occasion, she burned to know who'd done it and why such a picturesque block could be so aptly described as boring. Though most of their gorgeous Indian summer blooms were beginning to fade and give way to autumn colors, the sight of the street with lush old trees and carefully maintained homes with their elegantly manicured, ever-competing front lawns made Erin feel relieved after another jammed-packed day. She smiled contently as she passed each familiar house toward her own.
There were no rock stars or celebrities here in Briar's Point--which served as something of a "bedroom town" to the next city over, Riverbend, with almost a half-million citizens. The hospice hospital where Erin worked was a jog out of Briar's Point down the freeway in Riverbend. While she'd been in college and training for a nursing career, she'd lived there. In truth, though, she'd never had any desire to live anywhere but Briar's Point. Like its whimsical fairy tale name, this place was magical to her. This was home, always had been home, would forever be her home. Even she couldn't deny that life on Oring Street tended to be quiet though--at times even tedious. Suburban living consisted of snow-plowing in winter, endless raking in fall, gardening in spring and summer, and gossip practiced all year round free of charge.
As she neared her home, her gaze was drawn to the corner house across the street. The property had stood empty for years, ever since Mr. Dade died. His two children had promptly put their mother in a home. The kids had tried unsuccessfully to sell the aging, rundown house, yet refused to lower the price and take into consideration that few wanted to be saddled with such an old monster that would require an excessive amount of work to make it livable. Instead of accepting less to get it sold, they'd offered it for rent. Until a week ago, no one had been interested in taking them up on it. Then, last Saturday a middle-aged couple had moved in. While everyone on Oring Street had an avid interest in finding out all they could about the renters, no one had approached the house, and the pair had come out only to check their mail.
Erin sighed again. Life wasn't the way it'd once been, even in rural areas. When she was a little girl, her mother had always baked cookies to welcome new neighbors. The girls and I should do that. Tomorrow. In-between laundry and canning the last of our harvest. We'll welcome our neighbors like Mom did when I was Paige and Jacey's age.
That decided, Erin had started to turn into her driveway when she saw a new sign on the front lawn of the neighbor's house. The weathered "For Sale" sign that seemed to have been there as long as she could remember now shared space with a hand-painted wood sign. Strange, mystic symbols covered the board. A jumble of words read, "Moon Psychic Readings: Tarot and Astrological Readings, Séances, and Communion with the Dead. First visit consultations are free! Stop in night or day, or call our hotline! We make house calls! We're in the business of souls."
Erin gaped at the sign in dismay. How can something so weird come into a boring, quaint, mostly-Christian town? Besides, how many people in Briar's Point would be interested in such...well, woo-woo? Hopefully the business would fold in a few weeks out of sheer lack of interest.
Shaking her head, she pulled into the driveway of her two-story brick and wood colonial home. As she put the ancient car into park and turned off the engine, it spluttered and died with a pitiful croak. Groaning, she pulled up the emergency brake. She knew the car was no longer reliable. She'd bought it used when she started college.
Erin grimaced. Winter was coming, and she'd need dependable transportation. What with paying off so many school loans while trying to stay on track with house payments and monthly bills... Her mother hadn't left much when she'd died two years ago--little more than the house Erin and her sisters had grown up in, the multitude of bills that went with it, and some debts that her father had helped to incur but never felt responsible for paying. Since her mom passed away, she'd promised herself she wouldn't go into major debt--a constant worry. A new car would surely strain her budget.
Hoisting her immense bag over her shoulder, she pushed herself out of the car and walked over to her mailbox. She pulled a face at the stack of bills, then made her way to the front door. She looked at the flowering jasmine and honeysuckle vines creeping up the house, around the large Georgian-pane windows, and at the bed of evergreen azalea bushes growing beneath them. I'm not ready for winter. I wish it could stay summer all year round.
She pushed open the front door, calling to her twelve-year-old twin sisters. When no response came, she assumed they were next door. On Tuesdays and Thursdays this time of year, they had soccer practice or games that Erin couldn't attend much of the time. Their best friend's mother picked the three girls up from school each day, took them to soccer if they had it, and brought them home when it was over. The twins sometimes stayed with Mrs. Oring next door until Erin got home from work. More often than not...
Wonder if Mrs. O knows about the psychics across the street? Erin already knew the answer to that. Everyone on the block would know about it, like they did about everything else that happened here.
Erin dropped her bag and the mail on the table in the front hall. She made her way to the back door into the garden. Bitsy Oring had lived next door for as long as Erin could remember. As her mother had been, Mrs. Oring had been a nurse, but in family practice, not hospice. At fifty-nine, Mrs. O was amazingly spry and healthy. She enjoyed spending time with the girls in the summer while Erin was at
work or during the school year when they got home each day. Still, if their neighbor on the opposite side was home, the twins went straight there. Lately, they'd been spending all their time with Ty. I have to at least pretend it's not also my first inclination, don't I?
"They're here, princess," a familiar voice called from the opposite direction Erin was headed. Tyler Shaw had been her neighbor all her life, too. He lived in the corner house and the two of them had gone to school together, same grade. She'd been miniature prom queen as a little girl, and Ty had been calling her "princess"--along with other teasing names she assumed were based on the popularity she'd once enjoyed--ever since.
Erin heard Ty's new puppy yipping and tearing around the backyard, probably chasing the profusion of butterflies or birds that visited their unseparated gardens. When Ty got home from work, the girls went next door to his house to play with Missy, the three-month-old Golden Retriever he'd recently adopted. They loved the sweet, enthusiastic pup, but equally loved Ty's fifteen-year-old yellow lab retriever. Ned had been Ty's hunting dog since he was a teenager, and Erin had always felt like she vicariously had a dog through Ty. They all loved Ned, and he was dying. He'd been having trouble with his knees and eyes for some time, and she knew Ty was worried about him. He'd planned to take him to the vet today to see if there was anything they could do for him.
Erin backtracked across her yard into Ty's. This past summer, Ty had put in a massive fire pit in his back yard, planning to use it during the winter. Erin couldn't imagine willingly sitting around a fire in the dead cold, but the girls loved the idea. All of them were crowded near it.
Paige and Jacey knelt beside Ned, who lay in his favorite spot under the smoke bush. Ty crouched on the other side of his dog, looking something like a walking advertisement for denim. Pretty much everything he wore was made out of denim--jeans, vest, jacket, baseball cap. Sometimes even his shirts were made out of it. But he never wore black, gray, white or stone-washed varieties. It was always blue denim. After knowing him all her life, Erin associated denim with him. She couldn't imagine Ty wearing anything else. She'd often thought seeing him in the blaze orange or camouflage hunting outerwear she knew he wore when he went up north would be a shock to her system.
Ty stood at her approach, and Erin's gaze met the one from his dark green eyes in concern. "Is he okay?"
"Doc says it won't be long now," he told her.
Erin gasped. When she and Ty eased down beside the lab retriever, Ned whined in greeting, barely lifting his head. Paige hugged Erin, tears in her eyes. She put her arm around her less outgoing girl, then turned to the dog. She tenderly caressed his head, and he listlessly licked her hand. His attempt at their old manner of welcome made moisture sting her eyes. "Poor, faithful Ned," she murmured.
Glancing up at Ty next to her only brought her closer to tears. He wasn't crying like the girls were, but she could see the emotion in his worn expression. Without the words, she knew how broken up he was inside. He looked away, his gaze shifting to her pearly-pink nurse scrubs--clean for once after work. She'd had to change late in the day after a vomiting incident.
Missy ran up to them and yipped at Ned, who barely seemed to have the energy to acknowledge her obvious request to play.
"What did the doctor say?" Erin asked.
Ty didn't get a chance to say a word. The girls seemed to have memorized everything Ty had told them about Ned's visit to the veterinarian. They spouted it out, taking turns along the way. When they were done, Erin faced Ty once more. He was a man who dealt with trouble on a daily basis. He'd gone to the police academy after high school, surprising everyone who assumed he'd follow his parents into the outdoors ministry they'd raised him in. Eventually Ty became a detective. He worked at the Briar's Point Police Department.
Ty was strong, stronger than most. But she knew him well. She understood that, when it came to his loved ones and friends, he could be incredibly sensitive. There was nothing he wouldn't do to keep them safe and happy.
Erin couldn't talk herself out of reaching out to him, even realizing he might read into it. Without speaking, she put her hand on his muscular bicep and squeezed, alternately stroking his arm. They'd all been aware he got Missy because Ned was dying. Until now, that hadn't seemed so final.
"Why don't you two give Missy a run?" Ty suggested. "She's got too much energy to sit vigil with us."
Paige lingered a little longer than Jacey did, but eventually both girls were calling for Missy, and she chased them off into their adjoined yards. As if by mutual consent, Erin and Ty rose. She marveled, bearing no ill-will, at how abrupt the kids had gone from crying and sadness to squealing and laughter. "Did the vet give you an estimate?" she asked gently.
Ty swallowed, casting a glance at the girls before he spoke in such a quiet voice she wondered if he was having a hard time talking without getting choked up. "Week. Maybe."
Abruptly, the weird new neighbors, her rattle-trap car, the constant guard she had to maintain whenever she was around Tyler, and everything else she'd been thinking about before she got home dissolved. She leaned against his arm, threading both of hers through his to give him a sympathetic hug. The memory of how he'd been there for her when her mother died came back to her, inadvertently causing her to tighten her grip on him. Good memory leads to bad. In every situation. Don't go there. "I'm so sorry, Ty. Ned is such a good dog. He's been happy all these years. You know he has. You couldn't have given him a better life. But I know that doesn't make it any easier."
His opposite hand closed over hers, and together they looked back at Ned, who whined again. "At the very least, he'll be home when it happens," Ty managed, "and he won't be in any pain. I made sure of that."
Erin understood that Ty couldn't bear to see anyone suffer--especially someone he loved so much. He'd have put Ned to sleep before he let that happen.
"If the doctor gave you medication for Ned, you'll probably need help administering it."
Ty gave her a quick grin. "Hoped you'd say that, beautiful. Giving medicine's never been my strong suit."
Erin couldn't help chuckling. Ty didn't even like to take ibuprofen for a headache. He seemed to think a little pain could be tolerated, especially if it meant avoiding the whole drug thing. Needless to say, he'd require aid to give his dog something much, much stronger to prevent any suffering. Helping people die well, without pain, was her calling in life. She didn't mind assisting him. "No problem. Let me see what the doctor prescribed."
Letting Erin move away from his touch was never easy for Ty--even when he initiated the separation by asking her to help him give Ned the medicine that would keep him from feeling any pain until the end. Ty led her into his house to the kitchen. The bag the prescription had come in lay on the table. She opened it, then sat down at the table to read every word of the instruction and information sheets.
This whole thing was right up her alley, of course. She was a nurse at a hospice care hospital, and, though she went on daily home visitations, she was also required to perform a minimum number of hospital rounds each day. Ty had to admit he liked that her hours were a lot more regular than those of most hospice nurses. Good for the twins. Good for Erin and her personal life--she can keep her career separate that way. Good for me... Erin was suited to comforting people--and dogs--who were dying and those who grieved the loss of loved ones. He didn't have a clue how she did it. He was no good at any of it. But somehow, without saying a word, she'd comforted him today. She'd touched him, and he'd known they were one in everything they were feeling.
"Doc gave him something before we left."
"What time was that?"
She nodded when Ty told her. "Then I'll come over around eight-thirty tonight to give him this."
"What would I do without you, princess? Just sorry you have to mess up your evening for me."
"How could you even think that? I don't mind. You know I don't. We're friends."
Everything inside Ty rebelled against those words, but he knew it was her way--her way with him. She didn't want him to get any ideas about resurrecting a relationship that she considered dead and buried. Erin made it clear at every opportunity that she didn't want to go back--just as he made it clear constantly that he wouldn't give up.
She covered his hand with her small, obviously overworked one. The contrast in their skin colors never failed to make him want to capture that hand and hold it to his heart, his mouth. He was deeply tan from a summer of outdoor work and play. Though Erin went outdoors a lot, too, certainly in the summer with her huge, vibrant vegetable, fruit, and flower gardens, her skin was fair and tended to burn instead of tan. She was softly white-pink and her barely shoulder-length blond hair looked almost white against it.
"I am your friend, beautiful, but that's not enough. It'll never be."
"You're right. It's not Friday. I'll remind you again tomorrow that I love you and want us to be together."
"You won't need to."
Ty lifted an eyebrow, grinning. "It's my pleasure, princess."
Her mouth went tight, but she didn't pursue what she clearly considered a hopeless cause. "Well, the girls are probably starving. Instead of getting home and having a snack, they've been coming over to see Missy and Ned lately. I hope you haven't minded. You're too polite to say anything."
"Polite?" he snorted. "I love PB&J."
She smiled at his affectionate, though not quite logical, nickname for Paige and Jacey. "Well, send them home if they're getting in the way."
"Not even possible. But you probably missed lunch yourself. Go."
She didn't confirm his words, but he could tell by the expression in her eyes that she had. She had that kind of job.
Surprising him, especially after he'd been so confrontational, she invited, "Do you want to join us? We're having sandwiches tonight."
She made it sound like something they threw together, but he knew Erin maybe better than she knew herself. The bread would be homemade--something she'd started that morning, long before the rest of the world was awake. The meat would be leftovers from a ham or turkey she'd cooked over the weekend. The vegetables would be fresh from her own garden, which she'd spent endless days cultivating.
Erin Shanley was one in a million, a throwback from a world that had been calmer, tamer and more homegrown. Ty had realized long ago that no other woman could appeal to him the way she did. But he did wonder if she was crumbling a little in her stance of not getting involved with him again. Getting her to spend time with him in the two years hadn't been easy. Try hell. Sheer and utter hell. Then a slight weakening-- Finally she says more to me than those annoying, clipped greetings. In the past few months, things have changed. Slowly. I see her every day, the way I need to, and, more often than not, we're together every evening for most of the evening.
"I'll be okay. Still have to clean those fish my buddy caught and gave me last weekend."
They stood, and he followed her back out to the yards. As she and the girls expressed a warm goodbye-for-now to his dogs, he noticed how much Erin's sisters looked like her. That reminded him of the rumor her old man had started when Erin was seventeen. Her parents had starting having marital trouble long before Erin was a teenager. The relationship went from bad to worse, and her mother, Lynette, went to live with her sister in Michigan when Erin was fifteen. Lynette had found out she was pregnant after they arrived in Detroit--pregnant with identical twins. She'd contacted her husband, but he hadn't wanted anything to do with her or the babies. The marriage had been in such a bad place, her mother had stayed with her sister, gave birth to the girls there, but, when they were almost nine months old, she'd reconsidered coming back to her husband. The family had returned to Briar's Point. Wyatt Shanley had refused to accept Paige and Jacey as his daughters. And, with Erin taking a stand with her mother against him, he'd left town after starting a vicious rumor--that the twins belonged to Erin. And Ty.
Erin had been painted the scarlet woman by nearly everyone in town, but high school had been the worst. She'd gone from being Miss Popularity to having no friends. Everyone there believed that Ty had knocked Erin up before her mother took her to Detroit--where she wouldn't have to feel the shame for her disgraceful conduct. As the story went, when they came back, her mother had tried to hide the truth by saying the girls were her own. The rumor they were actually Erin's children wasn't hard to believe. After all, everyone knew Erin and Ty had been hot and heavy for years before her mother had whisked her away from Briar's Point.
No defense Ty gave helped, but of course he knew the truth. Deeper than even knowing he and Erin hadn't gone that far, the bottom line was that she was a good girl. She didn't believe sex belonged anywhere but in marriage. Her strong morality had kept them in line when his had wavered. Ty did have to admit, though, that PB&J looked exactly like Erin with their white blond hair--Jacey's in Pippi Longstocking braids and Paige's long and loose--and the beautiful heather-gray eyes set in a delicate, heart-shaped face. They didn't look anything like their father--no more than Erin did herself--and they certainly didn't look anything like Ty. But all of the girls resembled Erin's mother.
Regardless of their parentage, Erin had been a mother to her sisters since her mom's death two years ago. The cancer had eaten away at Lynette a long time, finally rendering it impossible for her to handle much of anything. When her mother admitted her condition, Erin had had no choice but to come home after living on her own while she went to school and then started working at the hospice hospital. Lynette had made Erin the twins' legal guardian. Somehow Erin juggled nursing her mother until she died, taking care of her sisters, maintaining the old house, and working a full-time job in a difficult field. Ty couldn't imagine anyone else doing all she did--and she managed to make it look easy. Other than the fact that Erin worried like it was a chronic condition, he could believe she was one of the few people in the world truly content with her lot in life.
He watched the three of them pick vegetables from the mostly harvested garden before going inside. Sinking onto the built-for-two swing in his backyard, he watched Ned sleep peacefully while Missy ran around the yard barking at every bird that dared to enter her perceived territory. He thought about all the years he'd spent training Ned. When the doctor told him his faithful hunting companion was dying, he'd immediately gotten a puppy from a new litter a dog-breeder friend had. He'd be training Missy to be a hunting dog, too.
Paige had made it clear she wasn't too happy about that. Erin hadn't said anything, but he didn't doubt she felt the same way about hunting. While she wasn't averse to it and recognized--when she took the time to think about it--the importance of managing wildlife populations, she and Paige couldn't bear the thought of killing anything. Jacey didn't share their discomfort, and Ty had the feeling that bothered Erin a lot more than she would admit.
Ty's parents had raised him a hunter, just as they were. Though he hung around with plenty of men and women who lived for adventure as much as he did, he loved that Erin was so soft in that way. She revered all of God's creatures--once, she'd spent a week crying off and on about a chipmunk she'd accidentally run over. She'd feel guilty about it now if she thought about it. It was the type of person she was. He knew very few people with that kind of tender emotion. He supposed that was what had made it clear to him long ago that she was made for him.
The protectiveness he felt toward her and her sisters was unlike anything he'd ever experienced before either. His mother, his female friends--all sports-driven--could take care of themselves. So could Erin, but she also seemed to need a man, one who could perform manly deeds like fixing her car or lifting heavy things. She needs me. She might not like to admit it, but she knows it as well as I do. And I need that in a woman. She smoothes out all my hard edges. There's nothing I wouldn't be, do or give for her.
When he noticed the evening was turning chill, he stood and picked Ned up. Gently, he laid him on his familiar, comfortable old bed inside the house. Then he got food for both of the dogs. While Missy gulped hers in a few bites, Ned sniffed at his, tried to eat, but he barely made a dent. In the end, Missy ended up eating both plates, and Ty was too worried about his old lab to stop her.
Though his own stomach rumbled, he couldn't get himself to go through the motions of making dinner. He listened to the phone message he'd gotten while he was at the vet with Ned today. He'd told his parents that Ned was sick. The message his mother left was a cross between the mild sympathy and teeth-kicking logic that had driven Ty crazy for years. No softness, no real comfort like Erin gave me as natural as breathing tonight.
What would it have been like to grow up with a mother who's sympathetic, loving, and patient? A woman who wears her heart on her sleeve, who can't hide her emotions to save her life? Someone who wants to be nowhere else but in her own house at the end of every day, to build a warm, cozy, safe home for those she loves? Erin did love me once upon a time. She loved me the same crazy, desperate, amazing way I still love her. Maybe she does to this day. That thought keeps me going.
The phone rang, and Ty picked it up, pleased when his best friend and partner at the police department, Orlando Bateman, immediately asked how Ned was. Orlando wasn't a hunter himself--had pretty strong feelings against it, but, like Erin, he saw nothing wrong with it for anyone else. Certainly not for a dog that'd lived for the hunt most of his life.
"Will you be all right?" Orlando asked.
"Yeah. Don't worry about me." Ty didn't doubt that, being newlyweds--Orlando and Keeya had gotten married a week ago after the ultimate whirlwind courtship--Orlando would have plenty of other, better things to do than worry about him.
"I'll pick you up in the morning," his partner offered.
He wanted to say goodbye to Ned, Ty realized. "That'll work."
"Anything Keeya and I can do in the meantime?"
"At this point, not much. But thanks for your concern, buddy."
Orlando's call made Ty aware that he didn't like the idea of leaving Ned alone while he was at work. He couldn't take the day off out of the blue--Chief Krenshaw never allowed that for anything but an emergency. Maybe this was, but the Chief wouldn't make it easy. His recent divorce had turned him into the worst kind of workaholic. He expected everyone else to put in overtime with him.
Who can I ask to sit with Ned during the day? Everyone I know will
be working, too... Everybody but Rox. But do I wanna go down that road again?
For years, Orlando had been spouting pearls of so-called wisdom about how men and women couldn't be friends, especially if one or both of them were dating or married to someone else. Friendship with the opposite sex was relegated to marriage, or through marriage--as in, dating or married couples didn't spend time with the opposite sex unless it was with other married or dating couples. Ty had considered it all hogwash until he started seeing a pattern in his own life. All the women he considered friends--hunting or fishing buddies--ended up wanting it to be more than that. Ty never had. In Roxanne Porter's case, she'd been his friend all through high school--but when she was suddenly without a man for the first time, she'd turned to him. Ty had set the record straight and hadn't seen her since. Do I want to test Orlando's asinine theory here? What if Rox still wants it to be more between us? He was no more interested now than before, but he'd missed their friendship. Maybe she realized after he set her straight that he'd been absolutely right about the situation. So why hasn't she called me? Maybe she's embarrassed about it.
Still not entirely sure, he called her up, kept his tone light and friendly without being overfriendly. "How've you been?"
"Can't complain," she said. She sounded the same, though obviously wary.
"Same here." He gritted his teeth in the uncomfortable silence that followed. "I was wondering... My dog Ned? You remember him?"
"Well, he's not doing too good. Doc says it won't be long now, and I don't like the thought of leaving him alone. You're the only person I know who works the night shift."
"You want me to keep vigil for your dog while you're at work?" she asked, sounding a little surprised.
"Yeah. Would you mind?"
"What time are we talking?"
"I was thinking you could come here right after you get off work in the morning and stay until I get home around five."
For a long moment, she said nothing. Then she sighed. "Sure. I guess."
"Great. See you then."
When he hung up, he automatically turned on a game in the den near his dogs, but his interest wasn't there. The only thing he was looking forward to tonight was seeing Erin again.