Prince of the Hollow Hills 2 covers

Prince of the Hollow Hills by Margaret L. Carter

Prince of the Hollow Hills 2 coversWhen her sister mysteriously dies, Fern takes over the care of her baby nephew. She has no idea that his missing father wasn’t an ordinary man or that baby Baird is heir to the throne of Elfland.

Two rival elvish princes invade Fern’s life–one hostile, the other alluring. One wants to kill the child, the other to guard him. But both intend to take him away from her…

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I knew all along that a union between mortal and immortal could lead only to loss and grief.

May the Powers of Light guide me to kindle a spark of hope from this tragedy.

The portal contracted to a circle of light and vanished like a bubble popping. Cloying heat replaced the wine-crisp air of home. Kieran emerged into a cleft between walls of rock, so close together his shoulders almost brushed them on each side. Behind him, the walls narrowed still farther until they met, while ahead the space widened until the stony niche gave way to forest. He blinked in the glare of this world’s sun, dazzling even filtered through leaves. The moist, green scent of a summer day filled his nose. Four strides took him into the open, on a mountainside covered with trees and undergrowth. Not an ancient forest, he perceived. If he could rely on his slight knowledge of time’s flow on this plane, most of these trees had stood no more than seventy years. He drew a deep breath. Artificial odors, some kind of acrid fuel burning, tainted the air not far away.

Even a distant whiff of that pollution made him queasy. He ought to welcome that taint, though. It pointed the way to human cities, and he would need human help to reach his destination. Adair’s foolish passion created this catastrophe. Now I have to repair the damage he left. Kieran reined in his first impulse to charge headlong to the rescue. The sooner he found the child, the sooner he could leave this death-shadowed place.

Given the erratic connection between the time-streams of the two realms, Halwyn might already be far ahead. Also, the portal could be opened from this side only for the next few days and would then lock itself for two moon cycles, so Kieran had no time to waste. Still, he knew better than to rush forward in blind panic. He leaned against a tree, sensing the flow of its life under the bark. A red bird with a crest on its head fluttered down to alight on his shoulder. He willed it to fly away, for he needed to concentrate on more distant objects. With his eyes closed, he extended his inner senses in search of the child. Faintly, at the farthest edge of his perception, stirred a hint of the infant’s half-formed awareness. Perhaps Halwyn would find that trace impossible to pick up and would blunder around long enough for Kieran to make contact first.

He counted on having two advantages over his enemy. First, he had visited the human realm several times before, although only briefly. He had some sketchy knowledge of this region and its customs. Halwyn probably had little more than a spell of tongues to enable him to speak the language. Secondly, Kieran had pledged brotherhood with his cousin Adair. And now I must pay the price for my blood brother’s folly. He suppressed the pang that pierced him at the memory of his kinsman and forced himself to focus on the urgency of the present task. The mingling of their blood would surely forge a bond with Adair’s child, a link that would allow him to track the babe more reliably than the enemy could. Kieran would have to follow that trail if the mother had left her previous home. Once he found her, could he persuade her to yield the child to his protection?

Leaves rustled under his feet as he walked away from the portal. A sigh escaped him. Already he longed for home. Although cast out from his family, at least on the other side of the gate he had his own domain with its gardens and orchards and with lesser creatures who depended on him as their lord and protector. Here he could look forward to nothing but discomfort and danger, along with the ordeal of wrenching an infant away from its mother.

No need to agonize in advance over that prospect. The next hour presented enough problems. Following the fuel odor would lead him to a road used by hordes of metal carriages. A simple mind-control spell would induce one of their drivers to transport him. His stomach churned at the thought of that ride, boxed in by a framework of iron, but he had no time to indulge such weakness. My cousin got used to it. So can I. Bracing himself, he cast a glamour to veil his true appearance and started hiking downhill. He had failed Adair. He would not fail Adair’s child.

 

***

 

The bell over the shop door jingled. Behind the counter, Fern glanced up and suppressed a sigh when she saw her sister Ivy walk into Danforth’s Den of Mystery, wearing denim shorts, a halter top, and a cloth baby sling. Her flame-red hair, cascading down her back, curled slightly from the June humidity. A visit to the bookstore in the middle of a weekday afternoon probably meant she had a problem. The tense set of Ivy’s mouth confirmed the impression that she wasn’t casually dropping in to show off the baby. In the pouch on her chest, Baird blinked at the change of light from outside to inside.

Fern came out from behind the counter, wondering what her sister wanted this time. Beverly Danforth, her boss and best friend, straightened up from the corner where she’d been shelving paperbacks. “Hi, there, how’s the little guy?” Brushing book dust off her peasant blouse and calf-length skirt, she bustled over to the counter and tickled the baby’s chin. His mouth opened like a baby bird’s. “Aren’t you getting big for only two months? How’re you feeling, Ivy?”

“Okay,” Ivy said with a faint smile. “Can I talk to Fern for a minute?”

Bev ran her fingers through her short, brown hair, pushed her wire-rimmed glasses up on her nose, and made an elaborate pretense of scanning the deserted shop for customers. Even on a Friday afternoon, the tourists didn’t flock here in droves. Located in West Annapolis away from the downtown historic district, the store got most of its business on weekends. “Sure, you can borrow her for two minutes or even three.”

Fern took a seat at one of the tables in the coffee bar area by the front window. Ivy crouched to pet a plump tortoiseshell Maine Coon lying in a basket on the floor, then sat down across the table from Fern. “I need a favor.”

“If you’re here about your tires, like I already said, you’ll have to wait until I get paid next week.” She didn’t like to borrow from her savings account except in a true emergency.

“No, it’s not that.”

“Oh, no, what else broke, and how much is it going to cost me?”

“Why do you think I’m going to ask for money every time you see me?”

“Because you usually do. Not that I mind helping out when you really need it, like with the tires, but when are you going back to work? You should be in pretty good shape by now, right? Not that I’m pushing or anything.”

“I’m planning to get back on the Ren Faire circuit at the end of the summer, and meanwhile I have a couple of gigs lined up downtown.”

“So you can drop off Baird at my place while you’re singing, I guess? Which is okay,” Fern hastily added. After all, she didn’t exactly have a whirlwind social calendar. “Haven’t you given any more thought to getting a real job? After all, you’ve got a baby to think of now.”

“Yeah, I noticed. When are you going to accept that my music is my real job?”

“I never said there was anything wrong with that, did I? Just that you can’t depend on it to support you and Baird, especially with Adair–gone. Not to mention the hassle of dragging a baby around to one Renaissance Faire after another.”

“Lots of couples bring their kids along.”

“Couples. A single mom is a whole ‘nother thing. And you aren’t still expecting Adair to come back, are you?”

Ivy’s eyes widened with a flash of anger. “You know I don’t expect that. If he could have, he’d have done it already. Something terrible’s happened to him, I know it.”

“Yeah, right, another premonition.” Ivy would grasp at any fantasy rather than entertain for a moment the idea that her lover might have bailed the same way their father had.

“Never mind, I didn’t come here to rehash the same old arguments. I need you to take Baird to your place for tonight, maybe longer.”

“Why?”

“He isn’t safe at home. Somebody’s after him.”

“Who? What’s going on?” Fern’s throat tightened in fear. She stared at the baby, snuggled against Ivy’s chest with a lock of her hair clutched in one tiny fist. “Did you get a threatening phone call or something?”

“Promise you won’t blow me off? I really do have a premonition.” The tension in her voice kept Fern listening, despite her scorn for the whole clairvoyance notion that Ivy put such faith in. “They’re going to try to take him from me.”

“How do you know that? Anything besides your second sight?” Otherwise known as imagination working overtime, in Fern’s opinion. The mere mention of the subject made her stomach knot with anxiety. All that New Age mumbo-jumbo sparked nothing but negative memories in her.

Ivy shook her head, clearly annoyed by Fern’s skepticism. “I just know. Take him to your house where he’ll be protected, at least a little bit.”

“What makes my place any safer than yours?” Torn between relief that no concrete danger existed and worry over her sister’s paranoia, she strove to keep the exasperation out of her voice.

“I can’t explain it,” Ivy said with a sigh. “You wouldn’t believe me, so why waste my breath?”

Reaching across to stroke Baird’s downy hair, damp from the warm weather, Fern said, “So don’t tell me. Look, you know I don’t mind watching him, but I don’t get off until five. You can bring him over for the night then. Come to think of it, if your house isn’t safe, why don’t you stay over, too?” One of them would have to sleep on the couch, but if that arrangement would make Ivy quit worrying about imaginary bogeymen, Fern could live with it.

“I’m afraid they’ll find me. I can’t risk having Baird with me when that happens.”

“Who the heck is this ‘they’?” The shop’s bell rang at the entry of two middle-aged women, causing Fern to drop her voice to a whisper. “If you have any definite idea of who might want to hurt you, why don’t you call the police?”

“Because I don’t have a name or a description,” Ivy whispered back, “and if you think I’m crazy, the police sure would. Can’t you just do what I ask without arguing, for once?” She spread one hand over the baby’s back in a protective gesture. Tears shimmered in her eyes. “I’ve lost Adair. I won’t let anything happen to Baird.”

“Hey, stop that.” Fern leaned over to put an arm around her sister’s shoulders. The familiar guilt coiled like a snake in the pit of her stomach. Somehow, Ivy could always make her feel like a negligent parent, even though the age gap between them was only six years. Fern could never quite ignore the ghost of their mother’s voice in her head, ordering her to keep an eye on her little sister. “I already said I’d take care of him. Drop him off about five-fifteen.”

Shaking her head, Ivy rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. “Like I said, he isn’t safe with me. I’ll leave him at the day care center until you can pick him up. That should be okay for a couple of hours.”

“Sure, if it’ll make you feel better.” The baby had never spent a night away from Ivy before. Fern hoped feeding from bottles instead of nursing for that many hours wouldn’t upset his digestion. “Are you planning to collect him tomorrow morning or what?”

“I’ll call you later, and we can figure out what to do next. I might have to leave home for a while. I don’t know. Oh, and I have to give you this.” From under the baby sling she pulled a chain she wore around her neck. Fashioned of lacy wrought iron, it supported a Celtic cross of the same metal. In the center of the cross, a crystal sphere held a four-leafed clover. Ivy had ordered the necklace custom-made at a downtown Irish-themed shop, along with a matching filigree bracelet also adorned with a clover inside a marble-sized glass ball. Now that Fern thought of it, she realized Ivy had worn the set of jewelry constantly for the past few months, an odd habit considering neither of them had ever paid much attention to religion aside from Christmas and Easter services.

When Ivy handed her the necklace, Fern stared at it in bewilderment. “You want me to borrow this? Why? You never take it off.”

“I wear it for protection, which you might need soon. Better safe than sorry.” The urgency in her voice, still thick with unshed tears, underlined her sincerity. This plea meant more than a lighthearted “can’t hurt” ritual of knocking on wood or circling around to avoid a black cat.

Rather than start another argument, Fern hung the chain around her neck, with the cross tucked into her blouse. “You know what I think about that stuff, but if you insist, I’ll wear it. What about you, though? Sounds like you’re the one who needs protection.”

Ivy touched her left wrist. “I still have the bracelet.” She stood up. “Now I’ve got to go. I’ve been out with Baird too long already. I have to get him to the day care. Almost forgot, I put something else in the baby bag you might need. The instructions are on the bottle.” She cut off the next question with, “No time to explain, and it’s another thing you wouldn’t believe. Maybe we can talk about it later.” She bent over to give Fern a hug, with the baby snuggled between them. “Thanks, sis. I know you think I’m nuts. So, well, thanks for humoring me.”

Fern kissed the top of Baird’s head, patted Ivy on the back, and watched her sister carry the baby out to the car parked at the curb.

When she resumed her spot behind the counter, Bev said, “Do you think there’s really anything wrong, or just postpartum nerves?”

“That’s got to be it. Who’d want to hurt Ivy or Baird?” Fern busied her hands with rearranging a stack of promotional fliers left by a local author. “You know she’s always thought it’s cool that second sight is supposed to run in our family. Sometimes she lets the idea trample on her common sense.” She broke off when the two women shoppers finished their browsing and walked over with a couple of books each, which she rang up.

After the customers left, Bev said, “You don’t think in this one case she could be right?”

Fern rejected the comment with a vigorous shake of her head. “Every time she came up with an incident she thought proved we had clairvoyance or whatever, it could just as well be explained as coincidence. Today is no different. Like you said, she’s nervous because she’s alone with a new baby.”

Early in her school years, Fern had learned to keep quiet about her random flashes of intuition. Mentioning them had brought her nothing but trouble. What was the point of telling the next-door neighbors their lost dog was lying hurt in the crawl space under a vacant house, when she couldn’t explain how she’d known and so had been accused of wounding the dog in the first place? A few episodes like that had taught her to keep her mouth shut. Life had gone smoother after she’d taken the next logical step and convinced herself those feelings and premonitions had no grounding in reality. Neither did Ivy’s.

“If she’s that scared of staying home alone with him,” Bev said, “maybe you should take her out of town for a few days. You know you can use my place on the Eastern Shore whenever you want. You still have your key from our last trip, right?”

Fern nodded. The tempting image of Bev’s beach house floated into her mind. “I don’t know. I’ll wait and see if Ivy calms down by tomorrow. I shouldn’t bail on you just when the tourist season is getting into full swing.”

Kneeling beside the half empty box of books on the floor, Bev said over her shoulder, “You work too hard. We do have other staff coming in this weekend, you know.”

“Yeah, but as assistant manager, I have to set those college kids a good example.”

Bev laughed. “Girlfriend, sometimes I can’t believe you hit the big three-oh just this year. I think you were born middle-aged.”

“You know where I’m coming from. I don’t want to turn into my mother. Bad enough Ivy’s doing that.”

Hands on hips, Bev shot her a mock-scolding glare. “You can’t style your whole life around being the opposite of your mother. Don’t you remember how to have fun?”

“I have plenty of fun.” Fern walked over to the coffee bar and fidgeted with the cups and napkins that didn’t really need straightening. “What do you think I do on my days off?”

“Besides laundry, cleaning, and helping Ivy with the kid? Rent videos and eat ice cream in your pajamas, I bet.”

“So what’s wrong with that?” She felt herself flushing, irritated at the defensive tone that crept into her voice. The cat, Tilly, stretched, crawled out of her basket, and strolled over to rub against Fern’s leg. She bent to give the cat an absent-minded stroke.

“Nothing, if you don’t mind living the life of a nun, only without the cloister and the neat black outfits.”

“I don’t think they allow rocky road ice cream in convents. And I don’t have time for a guy, even if I could find one who’d accept Ivy as part of the package.” Look who was talking, anyway. Bev spent most of her waking hours at the store.

“Well, you need some kind of company in that apartment. Tilly’s going to have her kittens in a couple of weeks. Why don’t you take one of them when they get old enough?”

“Come on, you know I can’t afford a purebredcat.”

“And you know I’m talking gift, not sale.”

Though she wouldn’t admit the feeling to Bev, a kitten sounded even more tempting than a weekend at the beach. Fern knew she would enjoy a warm bundle of fur on her lap while she watched her Saturday night chick flicks. The last thing she needed, though, was one more living creature dependent on her. The last pet her family had owned, an elderly, gray-striped tomcat, had fallen sick one night while Fern had been babysitting for her little sister, with their mother at a poetry slam in a coffeehouse over an hour from home. With no way to transport the cat to a vet, Fern had phoned her mom to rush home and then helplessly watched his breathing grow more labored and fade into silence. Her mother had walked in the door a few minutes too late.

“Thanks, but I don’t want the responsibility. I already have what amounts to a fifty percent share in a baby. I can’t handle another one, even if it’s not human.”

With a despairing headshake, Bev withdrew to the back room for another book crate. For a woman only one year older than Fern herself, she thought, Bev acted like an overprotective aunt.

When the front door jingled again a second later, the man who stalked into the shop didn’t act like a customer. He didn’t spare a glance for the books. Instead, he marched straight to the counter. Tall and lean, he wore sleek-fitting, black jeans with a short-sleeved, blue polo shirt. Though his long hair, tied back with a leather thong, was entirely silver, his face, pale with a hawk-like profile, showed no signs of old age. Despite his grim expression, he didn’t look much more than thirty.

Fern caught herself staring into his eyes, an unusual shade of light brown that looked almost amber in the shop’s overhead lighting. She swallowed and forced out the words, “May I help you?”

“I’m looking for a woman.” He pulled out a wallet and flipped it open. Glancing down, Fern saw a private detective’s license. She blinked, trying to focus on the details, but he snapped it shut before she could even make out the man’s name. “I need to speak to Ivy MacGregor. Have you seen her today?”

The abrupt tone of the question put her on guard. “Yes, as a matter of fact, she was here earlier this afternoon.” His cold gaze induced a slight wariness that kept her from volunteering her relationship to Ivy.

“Do you know where she might be now?”

“Not a clue.” Fern felt sure her attempt at a cheerfully casual reply fell flat. He would probably pounce on her lie like Tilly on a wind-up mouse.

“Then perhaps you know where she lives.” Though relentless in its persistence, his voice was almost a pleasure to listen to, like the pealing of a bell.

Fern shook her head to dispel the ridiculous image. He sounded like any other man with a melodious tenor voice. “I can’t tell you that.”

“But do you know?” His tone shifted from inquisitorial demand to smooth persuasion. “If so, it’s important that you tell me. I must find her. I need to give her a warning.” He leaned on the counter, capturing her gaze again. The music of his voice made her feel as if her head were floating a few inches above her body.

“About what?”

“She is being pursued by a man who intends to lay claim to her child. He’s a relative of Adair Hunter.”

The name broke the trance Fern was drifting into. She dragged her eyes away from the detective’s. “What do you know about Adair?”

“That he has disappeared and that his family wants the boy. They’ve sent someone to kidnap him. You must help me warn Miss MacGregor before it’s too late.” He leaned still farther over the counter, until it almost seemed he meant to grab her.

The echo of Ivy’s claim that Baird was in danger knocked the breath out of Fern. Her fingers crept to the necklace her sister had insisted she wear. She drew the chain out of her blouse and nervously twirled the Celtic cross. “I can’t help you.” Her voice sounded thin and shaky to her, with none of the determination she wanted to project.

The man straightened up and took a step back. “All right. I’ll return and talk with you tomorrow, if I don’t find her before then. If you are her friend, I’m confident you’ll reconsider your…reticence.” He wheeled around and walked briskly out of the store.

Bev emerged from the back room and stepped up to the counter beside Fern. “What on earth was all that about?”

Fern shook her head. “Says he’s looking for Ivy. Strange detective, come to think of it. If he’s that anxious to get in touch with her, why didn’t he give me a card with his number in case I reconsider, as he put it?”

“I heard him mention warning her.”

“Yeah, well, I can do that, and for all I know, he’s what she needs warning about.” After that cryptic conversation, Ivy’s premonition sounded a little more plausible.

Fern pushed the thought aside. Getting sucked into that kind of nonsense would turn her into a nervous wreck like Ivy, not to mention distracting her from her concrete goals. An aspiring businesswoman couldn’t waste time on occult woo-woo stuff. She dialed Ivy’s cell phone and got no answer. After leaving a message, she tried her sister’s apartment phone, with the same result. With a sigh, she recorded another message and hung up.

“I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about,” Bev said. “She’s probably on her way home.”

“Who says I’m worrying?”

“Don’t try to kid me, hon. You’ve made a second career out of worrying about her.” To Fern’s relief, they had to drop the conversation when a flock of teenagers wandered in to buy mocha lattes. After a pause to pet the cat, they headed down the street toward a nearby music shop, leaving the bookstore, it seemed, even quieter than before they’d come. Fern dialed both of Ivy’s numbers again. Still no answer. “Why doesn’t she turn her cell on?” she grumbled.

A few minutes later, while restocking a rack of brochures about Naval Academy tours, she glanced up at a flicker of movement in the corner of her eye. She caught sight of a man on the sidewalk peering in through the display window. Her chest constricted at the sight of his platinum hair, rippling almost to his shoulders. She dropped the pamphlets she was holding and rushed to fling open the door. “Adair!”

The man whirled around to stare back at her. Anger welled up like bile in her throat. She charged at him with clenched fists. “What’s the idea of vanishing off the face of the earth like that? You’ve got a newborn baby who needs you, not to mention the woman you claimed you loved!”

He grabbed her forearms to fend her off. From her modest five-foot-five height, she tilted her head to gaze up at him. Eyes of a deep moss-green snared hers. But they held a cold determination she’d never seen in Adair’s.

Realization hit her like a punch to the head. She pressed her hand to her chest, where her heart thudded frantically against her breastbone. “No. I’m sorry. You’re not him. But you look so much like him.” This man had the same greyhound-slim, graceful build as Adair and the same chill beauty, like a marble sculpture, but the bleak lines of his face suggested a harsher outlook on the world. He wore a long-sleeved, loose shirt that looked too warm for midsummer, with sleekly fitting trousers of the same smoky gray material.

When he let go of her arms, she stumbled. He clutched her elbow to steady her, and a shock like static electricity sparked on her bare skin. “My name is Kieran,” he said. “We have met before.”

Freeing her arm from his clasp, she said, “Oh, right, that one time at Ivy and Adair’s place.”

He nodded. “You’re Ivy’s sister, yes?”

“Fern MacGregor. Yeah, I know, Fern and Ivy. What can I say? Our mother was a late-blooming flower child.” He arched his eyebrows in apparent bewilderment. She let the implied question pass, not in a mood to discuss twentieth century social movements. “And you’re Adair’s cousin.”

That fact triggered a more detailed memory of their brief meeting. No wonder Kieran’s hawk-like profile looked familiar. Though short, that encounter had been memorable. “We all had lunch together, and then you dragged him out back for a shouting match.”

The visit had occurred in September, early in Ivy’s pregnancy. They’d shared a simple meal of homemade vegetable soup, fruit salad, and whole-grain bread. Before lunch, with Ivy and Adair busy in the kitchen, leaving Fern and Kieran together on the tiny, fenced patio, she’d tried to start a conversation with him. He hadn’t volunteered any information about himself, but the two of them had agreed on how frustrating their younger relatives’ carefree lifestyle could be. “Adair does not seem to grasp the seriousness of his family responsibilities,” Kieran had complained.

Fern had sympathized, with the comment that Ivy and Adair made a perfect match that way. “She’s always been a little out there.”

“Out where?” His voice held a faint accent, nothing she could identify, only a hint that English wasn’t his first language.

“Someplace I’ve never visited,” she’d said with a wry laugh, “but I guess it’s wherever Adair comes from.”

Only after lunch had the pleasant atmosphere deteriorated into a fight between the cousins. Fern and Ivy had sipped iced tea at the kitchen table in silence, while the argument raged outside on the patio in a foreign tongue Fern hadn’t recognized.

At the time, she’d appreciated Kieran’s exotic good looks in a purely aesthetic way, of course. She’d enjoyed watching his long, graceful fingers peel and chop the apples, pears, and peaches Ivy had assigned the two of them to cut up for the salad. When he’d licked peach juice off his fingers, she had let her thoughts stray into fantasies of how those hands and lips would feel on her skin. She wouldn’t have considered replacing fantasy with action. She had goals that left no time for pursuing any male, especially one she hardly knew, no matter how gorgeous. In fact, she’d thought Kieran’s maturity made him even more attractive than Adair, who she couldn’t deny was the most beautiful man she’d ever met up to that point, even if he had seduced her sister off the straight and narrow path. She had actually started to like Kieran, until she’d overheard that fight on the patio and Ivy had later translated the gist of it for her.

She still appreciated his physical attributes, but this was no time to goggle at a luscious man. She wanted to know what he’d come here for and why his cousin hadn’t shown up. “You do know Adair disappeared before Ivy had the baby?”

In a cool, cautious tone, he said, “Yes, and that is part of why I need to speak to Ivy as soon as possible.”

“If you know where he is and why he left, she deserves to be told.” His expression turned still more remote. “Where can we discuss this?”

“What’s to discuss? Right here is fine with me.” She waved toward a bench on the sidewalk in front of the shop in the shade of a crepe myrtle tree. She took a seat, and as soon as Kieran joined her, she said, “Okay, what’s the story?”

“I need to speak to your sister as soon as possible. I thought I might find her here.”

“What made you think that?” Fern wondered how he even knew where she worked. “As you can see, Ivy isn’t here. She’s probably home by now.”

“Then I had better look for her there.”

“Are you going to tell me what this is all about or not? Where the heck is Adair?”

His mouth tightened to a grim line. “I’m sorry, I believe Ivy has the right to hear that news first. As for the other reason I’ve come, it is on account of her child. He is in danger.”

Her breath caught in her throat. Counting Ivy’s premonition, this warning made three in one day. “From whom?” she asked.

“That is connected to what happened to Adair.” He stood up. “I’m going to your sister’s home. If you see her before I do, please give her my message.”

What message? I’ve met more informative clams. Instead of voicing that protest aloud, Fern limited herself to a cautious nod. The detective, if he really was one, had warned her against one of Adair’s relatives trying to snatch the baby, and here a relative had shown up a few minutes later. Until she found out which if those men, if either, she could trust, she’d better volunteer as little as possible. She wouldn’t mention the first visitor to Kieran, much less bring up Ivy’s dire predictions. Why let him know she had a crazy sister? He might pigeonhole Fern as nuts, too. Even though she didn’t expect to have much future contact with him, she didn’t want to leave a negative impression with the first man who’d made her pulse flutter in months, if not years. It was just a matter of pride, not like she had any reason to care what he thought of her.

He said a curt goodbye and walked up the street toward downtown. No car, then. Maybe he’d arrived in a cab. When she reentered the store, Bev said, “Who’s the hunk? Have you been holding out on me, girlfriend?”

An annoying blush warmed Fern’s cheeks. “I wouldn’t exactly call him that,” she mumbled. “He’s Adair’s cousin. This is only the second time we’ve met.” She phoned both of Ivy’s numbers again and still got no answer. Hanging up, she said to Bev, “Ivy needs to know those guys are looking for her. Why isn’t she answering? She’s had more than enough time to drop off Baird and get home.”

“Listen, if you have a feeling she’s in trouble, you’d better check on her.”

“I don’t have those kinds of feelings. That’s Ivy’s thing, not mine.” She couldn’t let her friend and employer get the idea that she based her actions on gut instincts instead of rational thought.

“Still, you should go to her place and make sure she’s okay.” Bev held up a hand to ward off the protest Fern started to make. “We’re not exactly overrun with business here. Go on, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Fern let out her breath in a long sigh and stooped to retrieve her purse from under the counter. The heavy necklace thumped against her chest, bothering her, so she took it off and stuffed it into her bag. The humid heat of the afternoon settled onto her skin the minute she stepped out the door. In her car, she switched on the cranky air conditioner and waited for it to do its feeble best to relieve her discomfort. Her thoughts churned with anxiety. Little as she wanted to grant any validity to Ivy’s foreshadowing of disaster, she had to admit that if two other people claimed Baird was in danger, the warnings might have some basis in truth. Which one of the two should she be watching out for? The alleged detective who hadn’t offered his name? Or a close relative of a man who’d deserted his pregnant girlfriend?

Shoving these speculations to the back of her mind, Fern pulled her compact car away from the curb, made a U-turn at the corner, and headed for the historic district. She followed the narrow road between the high, gray walls of the Naval Academy campus on one side and the red brick buildings of St. John’s College on the other, then inched around the traffic circle next to the city dock, with its upscale shops and million-dollar boats. Ivy lived only five minutes away in Eastport, across Spa Creek from downtown Annapolis. Fortunately, when Fern approached the creek, clogged with sailboats as usual in summer, the low drawbridge didn’t open. That delay would have thrown her into screaming hysterics.

She drove a few blocks in the light midday traffic, through shady streets lined with respectable but faded-looking houses built between the World Wars, to the almost-new townhouse complex where Ivy rented a two-bedroom apartment. The car’s erratic cooling system had barely cranked up to speed by that time. A sheen of sweat coated Fern’s arms and forehead when she parked in front of her sister’s unit. Ivy’s shabby, blue sedan with the baby seat in the back sat in its usual spot. Fern strode up to the door and rang the bell. No sound came from inside.

A movement in the corner of her eye made her jump. Wheeling around, she found Kieran at her elbow. “Don’t sneak up on me that way. What are you doing here?”

“Looking for Ivy, as I told you.” He wore tight-fitting gloves of thin, supple leather or kidskin, a strange accessory on a summer afternoon.

“You just got here? You haven’t seen her yet?” He shook his head.

When he didn’t volunteer any further information, she turned away from him, opened the screen door, and knocked on the wooden panel. Still nothing. She tried the knob. Although expecting to need her key, she found the door unlocked. The air conditioning, set low enough to generate exorbitant electric bills, made a shiver course over her bare arms when she stepped inside. “Ivy? You home?”

Kieran followed her into the apartment. She pretended to ignore him.

She hurried through the deserted living room to the kitchen. Nobody there. The silence pressed on her like a hundred-pound weight. She checked the downstairs half bath, then rushed through the living room and up the stairs, with Kieran right behind her. Bathroom, empty. Baby’s room the same, of course. Her heart raced with mounting anxiety. Something’s wrong, terribly wrong. Ivy’s prediction is coming true. Fern squashed that thought like a spider. These feelings of impending catastrophe weren’t real. She couldn’t let them control her actions.

When she reached the open door of Ivy’s bedroom, she discovered her sister sprawled on her back, with arms and legs flung at awkward angles, eyes shut, and her long hair fanned out behind her head. Oddly, a wrench lay beside her right hand, as if she’d dropped it when she had fallen.

God, no, not again! An all-too-vivid memory flashed into her mind–the image of her grandmother lying on the kitchen floor in almost the same position. At the age of sixteen, Fern had rushed home from school, a weight of imagined doom crushing her chest, to find that what she’d “imagined” was horribly true. Her grandmother had never regained consciousness, and Fern and Ivy had lost their last real home.

Collapsing to her knees, Fern groped for a pulse at Ivy’s neck and wrist. No pulse, no breath, and in the artificially chilled room, the flesh held little warmth. She swallowed the scream that tried to burst from her throat. Instead, she picked up the bedside phone and dialed 911, gave the operator the information, and left the phone, with the line still open, on the bed. She glanced up at Kieran, who stood in the doorway with his face frozen in a stunned stare. Why doesn’t he do something? She dismissed him from her thoughts and focused on her sister. She straddled Ivy’s body and started CPR, but the intuition she’d always tried to deny told her there was no hope. Still, with tears trickling down her cheeks, she kept pumping until she heard the wail of a siren, and a minute later two uniformed men clattered into the room. When she stood up to meet them, Kieran was gone.

 

Prince of the Hollow Hills Print cover