This Week: Where It All Began
It's finally here…
A Wonder Springs Cozy Mystery Omnibus: Books 1, 2 & 3
No one knows her secret power.…
Well... except her psychic Grandma. And empath cousin. And mind-reading parrot.
Can Summer and her zany family catch the real killers in time?
Get the first three full novels in one bargain box set.
*** LAUNCH SALE NOW! ***
(Ends Monday, Apr 5)
To celebrate this launch, your free read this week is MASSIVE.
You get the first FIVE chapters of the first of these three full novels.
Almost 10,000 words.
Right here, for your reading pleasure.
YOUR FREE READ BEGINS NOW.
The letter wafted the scent of old cedar chests, and lilacs, and spring.
The address — my address — was penned in a script that was impossibly gorgeous, and the thick, cool, creamy ivory paper gave me a tiny jolt at every touch.
Not a "magic" kind of jolt. I only get that if I touch… well, you'll see.
This was just a feeling of excitement, and curiosity, and maybe a teeny bit of dread. There was no return address.
If I'd known that by this time tomorrow, I'd be neck-deep in solving a murder, in some tiny town I'd never heard of, with my whole view of what was and wasn't possible pretty much shattered… would I still have opened that letter?
Are you kidding? Absolutely.
Besides, I'd kind of just burned a few bridges here in Philly.
Not that I was really worried. No way.
Hence my decision to drop in here at my favorite hipster coffee joint, just as if nothing had happened. Nothing a late-morning latte couldn't fix.
There was this lady behind me in line, though, and she was worried. She was an older lady in a cute spring sundress, and she was clutching her purse and creasing her forehead.
"Hey!" I said, all cheerful. "I love your outfit."
Her frown cleared into a gracious smile, and her eyes shone.
Honestly, her dress looked a bit chilly for April in Philadelphia. But I had to admit that I might just be jealous. When was the last time I'd gotten to wear a sundress?
I hate it, but I've had to get used to long sleeves, long skirts, long pants. To prevent accidents.
Anyway. Just then, the truth was that I may have had a minor setback, but I was determined to just sit and sip and relax and think, and figure out my next move. Everything was going to be fine.
"Excuse me, Summer?" said the hunky barista behind the counter, all husky and friendly. He had nice eyes and broad shoulders, and I couldn't decide whether it was flirty or creepy that he'd snagged my name off my credit card. "I'm really sorry," he said. "There seems to be a problem with your card."
Oh crud. Not again. Not now.
I'll be honest. I did consider giving his arm the Magic Touch.
But I nixed that idea. Sure, the effects might ease my embarrassment, but I'd still have to pay for the coffee.
Besides, I had no excuse. For a sales rep who pulled in as much as I did, it was just ridiculous that I couldn't stay on top of my credit cards.
Plus, I didn't want to try anything fancy in here; the little coffeeshop was packed with too many other people who might see. The nice sundress lady was watching me with increasing concern.
"No worries!" I said, and I flashed my best closer smile. "I know I've got cash."
Actually, all I really knew was that my other cards were definitely maxed out. And the cash section of my Italian leather wallet was currently holding a golden paperclip.
But I cracked open my cavernous purse and started digging. I'm tenacious.
And at the very bottom, in the prehistoric bedrock layer of stained pennies and used-up chapstick and ancient receipts possibly dating back to high school, I snatched out a crumpled ten.
This earned me an approving grin from Mr. Name-Reader. I paid, got my precious change, grabbed the coffee, and scurried to a seat to open my letter.
I know, I know, I should have saved the letter until after I'd done some planning to conquer my semi-immediate crisis. That would have been some excellent adulting.
But you've got to understand. I couldn't remember the last time I'd gotten any kind of letter. Much less on stationery that could be an invitation to a royal wedding.
It's not like I got Christmas cards. Dad's small family were all dead, and Mom's family, if she had one, hadn't written me. Ever.
Just like her.
I mean, who even sends cards or letters anymore besides family? During the holidays, I almost couldn't bear to check my lonely mailbox. I wasn't just an only child; I was practically an orphan. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents… if I had any, I had no idea where they were. And I'd looked.
The envelope's paper was so thick and high-quality that I had trouble opening the thing. Or maybe it was just the tremble in my fingers.
When I did get it open, the first things to slip out brought a stab of disappointment: folded sheets of ordinary printer paper.
But then I touched a single sheet of sumptuous stationery, also folded once.
As I opened it, an ornate letterhead shone at the top, but what riveted my gaze was the opening line.
My dearest Summer—
My solar plexus tingled down to my stomach. Who was this? No one had ever called me "dearest".
Then the moment was totally ruined.
At the counter, a harsh male voice snapped, "You forgot your entire wallet?"
It was Mr. Hunky Barista, scowling. I'd barely recognized his voice.
The woman in the sundress was bent and digging through her purse, her long gray hair spilling onto cheeks going beet red.
"I already started making your tea!" the barista barked. "Seriously, do you have dementia?"
The woman cringed. Like he'd slapped her.
"Hey!" I called.
The jerk startled and caught my eye. As I marched over, he flushed and looked down. "Sorry, it's just, the manager—"
"Don't you dare apologize to me," I said. I slapped down the rest of my last ten.
It was a grand gesture, but I did feel a slight twinge, that being pretty much all my cash. No, wait, I had some at home. Probably.
"Come on," I told the woman. "Sit with me." I patted her back (the dress material was thin, but enough to protect her) and I ushered her toward my booth.
Her eyes were wet, and her thin lips were clenched all wrong. I felt guilty for not doing more to ease her pain, but there really were a lot of people around.
"Listen, that guy's a turd," I said. "Forget it."
"I know, I should," she said, and the grief in her trembly voice tore my heart. "But my husband… he did. Have dementia."
That did it.
I whispered, "Forget it."
And I clasped her bare hand.
She had cold, soft, old-person skin. The veins on the back of her hand moved gently beneath my thumb.
But I felt the jolt. Like a static shock.
The woman blinked and looked confused. But her upset flush began to fade.
How did I feel? A little trembly myself… I never get used to the Touch.
Gently I guided her into the opposite bench at my booth. "Thank you for sitting with me!" I chirped, with practiced ease.
She was still looking lost. She glanced down at her tea in surprise; she probably didn't remember ordering it. "You'll have to forgive me," she said. "I'm feeling a bit… spacey…"
I brushed this aside with a genial wave. "I don't blame you, I've been talking your ear off! Don't think I even gave you my name." (Cue the killer smile.) "Summer Sassafras."
"Oh, what a lovely name!" she said, like she really meant it. "I'm Sheila. So nice to meet you." She held out her hand.
But I jerked my hand back, cranking up the smile wattage. "Sorry, I'm still getting over a cold," I lied. "Oh look, your tea's ready."
Thankfully, the barista had slunk off and was nowhere in sight. As Sheila went to retrieve her drink from the empty counter, I finally slipped out the letter.
My dearest Summer—
I know this may seem sudden, but I wish to extend you an invitation.
Come to The Inn at Wonder Springs, Virginia.
I would appreciate if you came at your earliest convenience.
The matter is somewhat urgent.
You may be in danger.
And you deserve to know the truth about your mother's family.
Gradually, I realized that Sheila was talking at me.
"Are you all right? Summer? Hello?" she was saying. Somehow she'd come back and I hadn't even seen her. She looked concerned again, even frightened.
"I'm fine," I lied. "Everything's fine."
"Are you sure? You look like you've seen a ghost."
I tried to stay calm.
Of all the surprises in that bizarre letter, I'd felt the most shock at the final word.
At the name, a strange resonance had quivered in my chest, like the tingle of a long-forgotten song.
Had I heard that name before? Why couldn't I remember?
Somehow it felt like long, long ago… like seeing a photo of your toddler self, and the feeling you get from the old front yard in the photo behind you. Do you really remember? Or is it something else… the memory of a memory? The ache for when everything felt real?
If it hadn't been for that wisp of memory, as if this woman might be some ancient family friend from back before Mom had left, I'd have chucked the whole thing as an obvious prank.
I mean, come on. Some random lady just writes me out of nowhere, with hints about "danger" and knowing my mother's family? The whole thing almost had to be fake.
And what kind of name was "Wonder Springs"? The town probably didn't even exist.
Except, crud, that printer paper that had fallen out was a printout of directions, printed from an ordinary map website. There it was, ridiculously prosaic: Wonder Springs, some tiny town in the mountains of Virginia.
The directions went straight from my apartment, and the travel estimate was at least five hours west and south from Philly. And the wretched traffic through D.C. and Northern Virginia might add hours more.
Oddly, "Grandma Meredith" hadn't thought to leave a phone number. I grabbed my phone to search for this theoretical Inn, so I could at least call and see who I was dealing with.
And… my phone locked up.
I dropped it, instantly, so I wouldn't fry it. My phone clattered to the table.
The Touch thing really hasn't been great with tech. I've burned through way too many phones.
I can use tech, sparingly, but when any tech I'm touching locks up, I've got seconds or less to break the connection. Otherwise, I'll do permanent damage.
It's kind of sad that I can function in modern society without skin contact, but if I had to stop using electronics, I'd be done.
I have no idea why electronics are less "sensitive" than people. I can use devices, but only if I stay calm.
Right now, I was very much not calm.
If there was even a chance this Meredith woman could help me find my family… I would certainly drive down to Virginia. I'd do much more than that.
Across the table, Sheila was looking like she really wished she could remember how she'd wound up sitting with this freaked-out Millennial who was now dramatically dropping hardware.
"Sorry," I said. "My phone gets hot. I should probably get that looked at—"
"Is everything all right?" she said.
"Yes, sorry. It's just this…" I touched the letter. "A bit unexpected."
"Oh?" she said. She eyed the letter with interest. "Such lovely handwriting. What's it about? If you don't mind my asking."
Or even if I do, I thought.
That's the problem with not having actual relatives. You catch yourself running decisions past total strangers.
"It's an invitation," I said. "To this Inn down in Virginia."
"How nice!" she said. "For when? Will you be able to get the time off work?"
"No worries there," I said. "I just quit."
(I told you I had a semi-immediate crisis.)
"You quit?" Sheila said. She pursed her lips with disapproval. Her whole friendly demeanor cooled considerably. "My son's been trying to find work for months."
"Trust me," I said. "He wouldn't want to work with Nyle."
I could see him now, grinning his scrawny grin through his overstyled, graying beard. Of all my work rivals over the years, Nyle Pritchett had been my arch-nemesis. The sneaky little creep had been #1 sales rep in our region for eons, probably since I was in high school. And I'd come so close to beating him for the top spot… so close…
"No workplace is perfect," Sheila said firmly. "Was this man your boss?"
"Not until this morning," I said. "Seriously, he got my promotion. I should have been his boss! I had the numbers. I'd finally beaten him in sales."
Her frown was skeptical. "Then why did he get promoted?"
"Politics!" I said. Which was true, partly.
Nyle was a wheedler, a crooner; I couldn't understand the power he had over people, ranging from women who should have been way out of his league to alpha male clients at the top of their game.
But power he had. That scarecrow with his padded suit shoulders could close a conference room packed with A-level executive piranhas without breaking a sweat. I hated that I'd had to work twice as hard just to be the silver medal to his gold.
That, and maybe bend a few rules.
Whatever. At least I'd never have to see that dude again.
"I see," said Sheila. "And how will you support your way of life?" This from the woman who would never remember that I'd spent my last few bucks to pay for her tea.
"Listen, I couldn't keep working there," I said. "Taking orders from him? Watching him ride a rocket up the corporate ladder? I'd rather die."
"There's always someone to envy," Sheila intoned.
"Yeah, but I don't have to live with them," I said.
I got up. I reached for my phone, then remembered about the Touch and, using the letter, pushed the phone off the table into my purse.
Sheila raised her eyebrows.
"Thanks for the chat," I said. "I've got to go, but this has been super clarifying."
That was one advantage of running your questions past strangers instead of relatives. You could keep running.
"And if your son's any good at selling incredibly complex software contracts to mind-numbingly boring government managers," I said, politely, as I hoisted up my massive purse onto my shoulder, "I'd be happy to give him a recommendation."
"He's a foot model," she said, shortly.
"Oh," I said. "In that case, I'd be happy to give him my spare toenail clippers. I don't know why, but I'm always buying an extra pair—"
"He's following his dream," she snapped.
"I hope he's wearing comfortable shoes," I said.
"Sorry, that was mean," I said. "You must get stupid jokes all the time."
"I'm very proud—"
"Goodbye, Sheila," I said. And I touched her cold hand.
The jolt hit me harder this time. I'd expected that; I didn't know much about the Touch, but I'd learned it was better to wait as long as possible between uses to avoid… unpleasantness.
I decided to jet while she was still sitting there dazed, instead of waiting until she blinked and looked around and wondered who I was all over again. It might seem harsh to leave her in a booth by herself, but it was better this way. In a minute or two, she'd blink, look around, and assume she'd been daydreaming. Alone.
I'm always amazed at how scary fast we can explain away what we don't understand.
Which was maybe what I'd almost done with this letter.
As I fought the midday traffic back to my apartment, I started to see the bright side of a drive down to the country. True, I knew I should probably be setting up job interviews. Especially considering my maxed-out credit cards and empty purse.
But what if this nice old Meredith lady was for real?
I glanced at the letter, which lay where I'd tossed it on my passenger seat.
And you deserve to know the truth about your mother's family.
Come on. Would you have started scouring the job sites?
Besides, I was getting too excited. If I tried job hunting now, I'd probably fry my laptop.
I decided to head out right away. I had a full tank of gas, right? Well, enough to get down there. And I had to have some cash in a drawer somewhere. Enough for a short trip. I'd swing home just long enough to pack the essentials… in particular, my cat, the esteemed Mr. Charm.
I've never figured out whether all animals are immune to the Touch, or if it's only my personal, wonderful cat.
When you can't even hug your friends without making sure you don't brush cheeks, you really appreciate your fat, lazy, snuggly cat. His breed is literally called "Ragdoll", and he's like a sentient white lap blanket. When I touch him, I don't feel a jolt, only a warm, soothing calm. And he only seems to relax even more… if that's physically possible.
Anyway, I was all worked up thinking about the trip, so of course I missed my exit, and then there was this crazy accident that made the beltway a parking lot. It was well past lunchtime and my stomach was howling by the time I finally parked at my apartment and clattered up to the glass entrance in my stupid heels.
I checked my reflection in the door. The spring humidity was frizzing my bounteous red mane, but only slightly. I'd come to accept that what my hair might lack in finesse, it more than made up for in volume and attitude. My dress jacket and long skirt were classy and confident, and though I was never going to be some twiggy starving model, I decided that between working out and cutting carbs, I was looking pretty darn good. Mostly.
One more girl in her mid- (okay, late) twenties, out to conquer the world.
As I rode up the elevator, I got even more excited wondering how Mr. Charm would react to the countryside. Who knew? He might even move around.
"Charm?" I called, as I unlocked my door and bolted it behind me. "Road trip! We're going to Virginia!"
"I think not," said a complete stranger.
He was a cadaverous old man in a black suit, tall and lean and sinking into my couch.
He held Mr. Charm on his lap, and his strong, thin fingers rested close around the furry neck.
Normally, I loved that first step into my apartment. The living room glittered with my exquisite taste, and a wide bank of windows revealed a gorgeous view of the water.
But now my velvet curtains were closed, and the lights were off. On my couch sat a tall man I'd never seen, shrouded in shadow.
He was old, with a gleaming bony head, but he was impeccably dressed in a black pinstripe suit. Though his weight was crushing the cushions, he sat straight up, and his posture radiated power. My precious cat was trembling in his grip.
"Who are you?" I gasped. "If you hurt him, I swear—"
"Let's not be hasty," he said. His voice was cold, smooth, and polished as a new gravestone.
"Hasty?" I said. "You've got ten seconds to get the hell out or I'm calling the police."
"I wouldn't do that," he said.
His thumb and forefinger tightened, ever so slightly.
I might be able to unbolt the door and run, but I couldn't risk this lunatic killing Mr. Charm. He didn't seem to have a gun… if he did, wouldn't he be pointing it at me instead of clutching my cat? I loved that cat… I could barely think, but I managed to tell myself, get this man talking. The second he got distracted and let go, I could grab Mr. Charm and run for the cops.
"What do you want?" I said.
His thin lips stretched into a smile. It sliced across his pale face, like a surgeon making the first cut.
"Please," he said. "Sit down."
Warily, I came toward him, but with a firm nod, he indicated a chair at a distance, well out of lunging range.
"You really should let him go," I said, as I sat. "That's a nice suit, and you're freaking him out. He's totally going to pee. Big time."
He frowned, with a visible flicker of concern.
Unfortunately, I was lying. Unlike me, Mr. Charm could hold it through a barrel plunge over Niagara Falls.
"Look, let him go, and you can make your pitch," I said. "I'll give you ten minutes. I promise."
"Do you?" he said. "And will that promise hold when you disrupt my memory?"
My stomach clenched, like I'd swallowed ice. I couldn't speak.
I'd been using the Touch for almost twenty years. Maybe longer. No one had ever guessed what I could do.
Not even Dad, and we'd lived in the same house. At least, officially.
I'd stopped even worrying whether anyone would figure it out. People might catch me and think I was slipping my "victim" a pill or something, but the Touch itself had been beyond secret.
Until this leering stranger broke into my locked apartment.
"I see we understand one another," he said. His smile-gash twitched with amusement. "I'll take my chances with the cat."
"Who… are you?" I said.
"That is of no consequence. For the moment. The far more intriguing question is: who are you? And are you living to your full potential?"
My hyperalert brain jolted out of its panic tunnel vision. Potential? Really? This creep was here to recruit me?
Yes, I was technically back on the job market. But would I sign on with the sort of Mr. Cadaver Guy who would ferret out my lifetime secret, break into my apartment, and threaten to throttle my cat? Not a chance. The last thing I needed was a Boss From Hell. Possibly literally.
"I'm listening," I said.
He sighed. "No. You're watching. Let us give you something worthy of your attention."
Keeping one hand clutching Mr. Charm, he lifted his other hand and slowly reached for my end table. "You may not be aware of this, Miss Sassafras, but you are not the only individual with a gift."
I didn't have time to process what the man might mean before I realized what he was reaching for.
On my end table was a spider plant, one of those exuberant houseplants that spills out in every direction like enchanted ivy. The man frowned, squinted, and touched the nearest tendril.
The entire plant withered.
Or even… bubbled. It happened so fast that I couldn't be sure.
My mind stopped. Total terror override. I was staring at the impossible, the living green dried to crackled gray in seconds.
You might think that since I personally had the whole Magic Memory Touch thing, I'd have been more prepared for this.
I'd never met anyone else demonstrate anything close to real magic. I'd gotten used to my own "gift" ages ago, and I'd lived a mostly normal life, thank you very much.
Now I was five feet from some lunatic who could kill with his touch. With his hand on my sweet cat's neck.
I'd never felt this level of full-body fear. But I could also feel the adrenalin rush, my senses kicking into high gear. And if there was one thing I'd learned from a gazillion sales calls, it was this: when you get scared, get loud.
"So! You're a magician?" I blared. The blast of my voice actually made Mr. Cool Cadaver startle. This was absurdly gratifying. "You rigged up that whole trick just for me?"
His eyes blazed with offense. Ice cold, he said, "Do you require a demonstration more impressive?"
"No, that was fantastic," I said. "I hope you do birthday parties. The kids must go wild."
"You are destined for a great work, Summer," he said. "You cannot escape the fate for which you were born."
A shiver crept down my back. No one had ever said anything like that to me. Ever.
But what I said was, "You talk a pretty big game for a guy who dresses like a substitute butler."
That did it.
When an old man spends that much money on his outfit, he's walking around with a neon sign advertising his weak point. He growled, and he clenched both hands into fists.
Meaning, he let go of my cat.
In one instant, Mr. Charm lunged, clawed the creep's face, and bolted. I'd never seen him move so fast.
The man shrieked and clapped a hand to his bloody cheek. I jumped up, grabbed my chair, and swung it into his rib cage. The thud made my stomach turn, but he gasped and doubled over, coughing.
I tried to run, tripping across the room in my stupid heels but too frantic to think of kicking them off. I still had my purse on my shoulder, and I swung it off and scrabbled through the junk to get my phone to call the cops. Minutes seemed to crawl before I found it, but the second I finally grabbed my phone, the damn thing sparked and started smoking. Dead.
I hoisted my purse back onto my shoulder and lunged for my landline. (Yes, I kept a backup.) My old corded phone was mounted by the front door. I seized the handset… and the line was dead.
What? I'd hardly ever fried the landline.
Then I saw. The phone wire was neatly cut, limp on the floor.
Then his bony fingers gripped my right wrist, cold and strong as iron.
The skin contact should have jolted me hard, but I was so amped-up that I barely felt a prick. I expected the man to step away, dazed by my Touch…
… but to my horror, he leaned close, completely unaffected, grimacing with rage.
I cried out and slugged him with my other fist. The blow was awkward and I missed touching his face, but my sleeved forearm slammed his neck. Even through my long sleeve, his skin chilled me like ice.
He let go and clutched his neck, gasping. "You… are wanted…" he choked. "At the… highest levels…"
I hollered for my cat, but Charm was already crouched behind me, ready to make another lunge. I scooped him up, struggled for awful seconds with the door bolt, and then finally escaped into the hall.
I tripped again on my detestable heels, and this time I kicked them off and ran. My stocking feet pounded on the thin apartment carpet, but I didn't feel a thing. I was down two flights of stairs before I realized that my wrist felt wrong. It was hot. Burning.
Where he'd wrapped his fingers, my skin was dark and mottled. Like cancer.
For the first couple of hours, I just drove. South.
It was a long time before I calmed down.
With my phone dead, my cards maxed, and no cash, I was very thankful that "Grandma" had had the foresight to print out directions. Most of this trip was going to be highways, and after a solid hour or so of monotonous driving on the interstate, I started to feel normal enough to think again.
I glanced at Mr. Charm in the rearview mirror. He was cuddled in the backseat, a big white ball of comfy calm, watching the world with his usual lazy grace. As if nothing had happened.
Just looking at him eased my heart rate. I really do love that cat.
"Thank God he didn't mess with you," I said.
Mr. Charm blinked. His big blue eyes vanished into his cute black mask of facial fur, then opened again, bright as ever.
I took this as a sign of placid agreement. I like to tell myself that Mr. Charm tends to agree with me. Also that he likes to hear me talk.
Even in my frantic rush to get in my car, I'd checked the cat's neck where the creep had been holding him. The fur was white and pristine, with not a hint of hurt.
My wrist, however, still ached. I let my long sleeve hide it and I tried not to think about it, but every time the rash caught my eye, I creeped out.
Shouldn't I be going to the hospital? Or the police? What the heck was I doing?
I did finally stop at a rest area and call 911 on an ancient pay phone. This was my first time calling the police, and I felt super anxious, like I might say the wrong thing and they'd be like, while we have you on the line, we're going to go ahead and pick you up for that jaywalking last Saturday. The laconic dispatcher didn't help when he kept asking why I was reporting a "break-in" that was already hours ago and over a hundred miles away.
By the time I got off the phone, I had zero interest in going to some emergency room and talking to a fresh round of total strangers. I hate hospitals anyway. And it's not like I had health insurance anymore.
I'll be honest: a woman who ran an inn and called herself "Grandma" sounded about a million times better just then than any other alternative. I wanted to crawl into a cozy bed and have some nice old woman bring me milk and cookies. I know it sounds childish, but I'd never had anything like that in my life. Not even close.
I mean, seriously, I'd been attacked. In my own home. A normal person would go and stay for a few days with family. Friends. Someone.
The hard truth was… I had no one like that.
I kept crazy busy with work, and then spent it all faster than it came in. Not a great recipe for social connections. The few old friends who might really have cared, I hadn't talked to in years.
(To be fair… it definitely doesn't help a long-distance friendship when you can't get emotional without shorting out your phone.)
Over the years, I'd tried to find Mom's family, but I'd always drawn a complete blank. If this Grandma lady really could tell me how to find them… real family…
I might finally find home. For the first time.
Of course, a few concerns did nibble at the back of my mind.
I mean, aside from the obvious issue of magic really exists, it's lethal, and some assassin magician dude is obsessed with making you his minion.
There was that.
But even with Grandma's letter… why had she just happened to write me right now? With hints about urgency and danger?
Had she known that this creep would come find me? And if so… what did that even mean? Could she possibly be… dangerous?
Nonsense. No way. That was preposterous. Just look at the woman's handwriting!
Okay, yes, I wanted to believe that everything was going to be fine. Maybe I needed to believe it.
But I could still resolve to stay alert. Despite her stunning penmanship, this woman was a total stranger.
"Good thing I've got you," I said aloud, glancing in the mirror at Mr. Charm. "Who knew a Ragdoll could be so good in a fight?"
Mr. Charm purred.
Around D.C., I hit some truly epic traffic, but I finally escaped onto a highway heading west into Virginia. At first, it was a slow slog through nasty sprawl and even more traffic, but at last the road cleared, and I was roaming free between the gentle Blue Ridge mountains. Up north in Pennsylvania, the April weather had been chilly and brown and bare, lingering in late winter, but down here, the slopes were green with spring.
Following the printout, I took an exit onto a country road. It was a two-lane ribbon of pavement, and although it snaked and twisted along steep slopes, pickup trucks zoomed around me at highway speeds. The dented guardrails looked like they might not save a scooter, and every so often, a roadside cross with a wreath of fake flowers marked a fatal accident. So much for the calm countryside.
But the natural landscape was soothing. The sun was setting, bathing mountains and valleys in a golden glow, and the space and the sky opened around me like I could finally breathe.
"Are you seeing this, Charm?" I said. "There are so many trees in bloom… blossoms are everywhere! White, pink, purple…"
But he was asleep.
That was the only real downer with all this country expanse and beauty. All this space seemed a bit lonely.
Then I crested a ridge, and the sudden view caught my heart.
Below me, the road sloped down to a small river that was sparkling in the sunset. A two-lane covered bridge arched over the water, complete with a wooden roof. Across the bridge, on a gentle slope, sat the loveliest little town I'd ever seen.
I'd seen other small towns on the way here, and they were mostly depressing. The country highway would blast past a few cruddy franchises, a decaying church or two, and maybe a post office from the Truman Era and a courthouse from the Civil War. The places seemed haphazard, accidental, unloved… like the crook of a stream that gradually gathers trash.
This was different.
Even from afar, you could see for sure that someone loved Wonder Springs.
Of course, it helped that the place was a sheer riotous garden of tree blossoms. I recognized the ethereal clouds of dogwoods, both white and pink, but there were also those purple blossom trees I kept seeing along the road, and trees that drooped and swayed like willows, but cascaded with white blooms. There were other kinds of trees too, more than I could recognize at this distance—trees in bloom were truly everywhere, festooning every street.
The shops and houses blended a quaint old-fashioned style with immaculate upkeep; even from here, the stone walls and wood siding sparkled pristine. The wide main street seemed to be paved with brick, or even cobblestones. I couldn't tell for sure, but there wasn't a car in sight, only people walking peacefully, many holding hands.
At the far end of that street rose a matriarchal mansion, brooding over the town like a mother hen. The mansion was a paradise of nineteenth century whimsy, with crenellations and towers and high windows aglow.
That had to be the Inn.
I drove down the hill and across the covered bridge, and the roof above and the river below made it feel like some fairy passage, both inside and outside at once.
On the far side of the bridge, the road ended in the pedestrian mall I'd seen before. The main street really was cobblestone. A pretty welcome sign politely guided me to drive around to a side street, and I followed more signs down a few blocks to the Inn.
Even the side entrance where I parked was gorgeous. A wraparound porch with a low, sheltering roof seemed to shimmer with hospitality, as if the empty rocking chairs were just begging you to sit and share a sweet tea.
In fact, two figures were already sitting there in chairs. But the sun had softened into twilight, and what with the high porch railings and the bushes of azaleas that were just starting to open pink, I couldn't quite make them out. One of them wore a strange high hat, oddly shaped but vaguely familiar.
I pulled into a spot, parked, and grabbed the letter.
When I looked up, one of the porch people had risen, the one without the hat. She stepped toward me, showing the face of a woman in her early fifties, with wide, dark eyes and a bright smile. She didn't seem like a "Grandma"; it was possible, maybe, but something in her expression just seemed too young.
Her smile was so friendly that I popped open my door and jumped right out.
Behind me, Mr. Charm hissed.
Because out of nowhere, a huge bloodhound had shown up.
The thing was enormous; its head in particular was somehow too big, its massive nose a couple feet from my thigh. It was sniffing hard, growling, and glaring right at my face with eyes that were just wrong. Uncanny.
I froze and clutched my car door, gripping it like a shield. My heart was thudding hard… the creature was so intense.
From the porch, the woman's nice smile snapped into frustration. "Jake! Scat!" she called. "She's one of us!"
The dog glowered, but it backed off and trotted away into the twilight.
Which would have been a great cue to relax, except that now the other porch person stood. And he looked like freaking Gandalf.
That familiar high hat? It was a wizard hat. He had a white beard that billowed all the way to his waist. And though the woman wore a light spring dress, perfectly normal, this old dude was rocking a freaking robe.
They both came toward me, creaking off the porch.
I don't know about you, but for me, a big scary dog and a big tall bearded wizard dude are not my idea of a welcome committee.
"Hold up!" I called, still hiding behind my car door. "Stay back."
But the woman's hand flew to her heart, and she caught her breath. "Oh," she murmured, talking not to me but to Mr. Wizard. "Oh, she looks just like her."
"Like who?" I said. "Are you Grandma Meredith?"
"No, Summer," she said. "But—"
"How the hell do you know me?" I said. "Who are you? Stay back, I mean it!"
They both stopped, and she winced, like she'd had a sudden cramp. But she smoothed her face back into a smile and then spread her hands, palms up.
"Summer, please, you're safe here," she said. "Are you hurt? What happened?"
How had I ever thought this woman looked friendly? Her dark eyes were earnest, boring into me like she could see behind my deepest lies.
"I'm fine!" I snapped. "I mean, yes, some random magician broke into my apartment and might have given me skin cancer—"
"Magician?" rumbled the wizard wannabe, speaking for the first time.
"You are hurt!" the woman exclaimed. "Please, we can help—"
She stepped toward me, but I shouted again and waved her back. The gesture yanked my sleeve up my arm, exposing a full view of my injured wrist.
The rash was spreading down my arm. At least two or three more inches of skin were blotching purplish-black. Toward my heart.
And I'd been blocking out the pain, but now that I looked at it… my skin felt pricked by an itchy swarm of little needles of ice.
Both the wizard and the woman were grave with concern.
"We need Cade," the woman said.
The wizard frowned. "He won't—"
"He'll have to," she snapped.
"Who's Cade? Is he a doctor?" I said. Their obvious worry was freaking me out. "It wasn't like that this morning. I need to get to a hospital." I ducked back into my car and fumbled the key into the ignition.
"Summer! Wait!" the woman called. "Please! They won't know what to do."
I paused, my fingers trembling on the key.
The woman still stood at a distance in the twilight. Her palms were up, but her voice and her face were imploring.
"I'm so sorry, Summer, but there's no time," she said. "If you drive away, that could go to your heart."
I didn't want to trust her.
In that moment, this whole trip seemed like the stupidest, most reckless mistake I'd ever made.
But there was something about the way she said my name.
When you live alone, people don't really say your name that much. Not like that.
Then, from the backseat, Mr. Charm crawled into my lap, purring hard. I rubbed his warm, furry back, and my breathing slowed a bit.
I pulled out the key.
The woman exhaled in a massive sigh.
"What exactly do you all suggest?" I said, quietly.
"You need rest," she said.
"Rest?" I cried.
Beside her, Mr. Wizard spoke a single word in a low groan. "Sleep."
A wave of exhaustion hit me like a smothering fog.
I fought it off, choosing not to analyze how the hell this could be happening. "What are you doing?" I snapped. I tried to jam the key back in, but my arm felt like lead and I could barely lift it. "This is better than the hospital? Some nut who likes to dress like Gandalf—"
The wizard raised his hands. "SLEEP!" he thundered.
I passed out.
I woke up slowly, gradually feeling the sunshine on my face and the warmth on my chest from a quilt and Mr. Charm. I was looking up and out a window, into bright clouds and a sky of endless blue.
Then I freaked. WHERE WAS I?
I sat bolt upright, sending Mr. Charm flying. As always, he landed easily on his feet. Then, with an arch look my way, he scampered up a quaint old dresser and curled up in a basket bed that was pretty much adorable.
Actually, that went for the whole tiny, gorgeous room. It was like all the bed and breakfast selfies in the world had died and gone to heaven.
Seriously, the place was a Regency refuge. Hardwood floors, deep-silled windows with diamond-paned glass, pretty wallpaper and trim with tiny flowers… and one whole corner was a reading nook, with a built-in seat and shelves by a sunny window. You could curl up on that cushion and reach for any book you liked; the shelves were well-stocked with old hardcovers that looked scuffed and loved.
Usually, I'm more into people than books, but that nook called to me. The whole room was wooing me; this was edging perilously close to love at first sight. My apartment was packed with expensive decor in the finest taste, but this felt like home.
I fought the allure. "What happened, Charm?" I demanded. "Who are these people? Did you see anything?"
But the little luxuriating sybarite just curled up in his new boudoir. Great.
Then I remembered. My wrist! That rash!
My wrist, my whole arm, was perfectly clean and smooth.
A memory flashed, confused and jumbled. Someone's hands were hovering over my wrist, not quite touching, but so close that my skin tingled with his warmth.
His warmth? Yes. The hands were male, strong but also gentle, and his voice was soothing and low.
Then I got another flash, a glimpse of his face. His eyes were so… kind… and he was both scruffily handsome and also watching me with total selfless concern. Talk about a combo to make you ache.
Three sharp knocks destroyed my reverie.
"Summer?" said a crisp, mature woman on the far side of the door. Her voice was Southern, but aristocratic, and even in that single word, she was soft as sweet tea and hard as nails. "Summer, it's Grandma Meredith."
I jumped out of bed, heart pounding. I caught a glimpse of myself in a full-length mirror and winced. I was still in my stupid dress suit! I was glad that no one had messed with me, but they could at least have taken off the jacket. The wrinkles were hopeless; I looked like a used lunch bag, and I didn't even want to think about how I smelled. Oh, and I had no shoes, of course, and standing there in my stocking feet made me feel about twelve.
I ran my fingers through my wild disaster of hair, hoping no passing birds would try to nest.
"Summer?" she repeated, with a harder edge.
"Come in!" I squeaked. I cleared my throat and tried to sound more like a grownup. "I'm ready!"
Maybe ready was optimistic.
The door opened, and in strode Grandma.
What struck me first were her eyes. Large, light, and striking, they were still and calm, yet they seemed to take in everything at a glance.
She was short and old, but crackling with energy. At first, I pegged her in her early sixties, but on a second look, I couldn't be sure. She might be in her seventies, or even eighties. It didn't seem to matter.
Her outfit was both super practical and super flattering on her trim frame. Her short and styled hair was dyed a graceful light blonde, and her makeup job was amazing. But it was all accents; she wasn't hiding her age like some injected celebrity. Age was irrelevant.
Not quite the comfy old darling I'd imagined. No milk or cookies in sight.
Behind her came a woman who looked younger than me. She had cascades of jet-black hair, and her cute bangs bounced over wide, dark, laughing eyes. Her heart-shaped face was bright with a perky smile; she had one of those faces that had to smile.
"Hi!" she chirped, and she actually waved.
Then, as she looked me over, her eyes went even wider with delight. She covered her mouth and basically squealed. "Oh my gosh! Look at you!" She raised her arms and rushed toward me for a tackle hug.
"Tina!" Grandma snapped.
The woman, apparently Tina, stopped short in surprise. She stood between me and Grandma, looking back and forth in confusion. Then her face cleared, like she was remembering something, and she sadly lowered her arms.
We all stared at each other.
Wait. Had this Grandma woman stopped that hug because she knew? About… my Touch?
No way. I was not going to go there. I really, really needed these people not to be on Team Magical Creep.
Of course, Grandma could have found out some other way than whatever magicky method Mr. Plant Killer had had at his disposal. But that option was almost worse. Wasn't I safer if you needed magic to know my big secret?
Anyway, whether she knew or not, she clearly hadn't lured me down here to trap me in an underground government lab or whatever so I could spend the rest of my life getting tested to death. (I hadn't really worried about that scenario since high school, but let's face it, I can wipe short-term memories. Imagine the potential uses that a government would see for "enhanced interrogation." When I'd first realized what might happen if I ever got caught, I'd had insomnia for weeks. )
Whatever the real reason was that this woman had asked me down here, I was going to focus on what she'd promised. The truth about my mother's family.
And, I hoped with a fervent ache, whatever I'd need to find them.
"So," I said. "I got your letter."
"I gathered that," she said, with a twitch of a smile.
"Should I call you 'Grandma'?"
"Certainly," she said. "Everyone calls me 'Grandma'."
"Grandma!" cried Tina.
"But you are my Grandma," Tina said, in a plaintive tinkle.
"True enough, child," Grandma said, with her first slight hint of affection.
To my shame, the corners of my eyes misted, threatening sudden hot tears. Wow… apparently I was feeling the lack of family support even harder than I'd realized. Was I that fragile?
I mean, it's not like I was hundreds of miles from home, the day after a freak attack, with total strangers who might know my deepest secret, or anything.
Watching me, Tina winced.
Oh, please, I thought, and the anger helped me get back in control. Stop trying so hard to be nice.
Or maybe she really was that nice. Like it wasn't already enough to be such a cute and gushy Southern belle that, even though she was wearing a regulation employee polo shirt and khakis, any male in the surrounding square mile would succumb to an instant crush.
I guess that sounds awful. But she was the one in the room with an actual grandmother. It's just hard when people make it look effortless. She probably had a high metabolism, too.
"May I see your wrist?" Grandma said.
"Oh! Sure," I said, like this was a completely normal routine when two people first meet. I pulled back the rumpled sleeve of my jacket, and both Grandma and Tina studied my smooth wrist with care.
"It's perfect," Tina breathed. "I knew he'd be amazing."
"Indeed," Grandma said, but she flicked Tina a sharp glance, and the younger woman fell silent.
Turning to me, Grandma said, "Thank you. And how are you feeling?"
"Oh, I'm fine," I said. "Mainly just… curious."
"I'm sure," Grandma said. "We have a great deal to discuss, Summer. But if you don't mind, may I first ask you to tell us how you came by that injury? I want to ensure that you've received proper care. The details matter."
I hesitated. It was surreal, this professional "bed and breakfast" lady asking me about a magical wound with the same calm seriousness as if she were taking a customer complaint about the service. I still resisted trusting her, but after all, my wrist was perfectly clear. If she wanted to know the details, I at least owed her that much.
As quickly as I could, I gave them a play-by-play of yesterday's encounter. I liberally paraphrased what the man had said—I didn't need to actually tell them about the Touch—but I did leave in his grandiose ramblings about my Great Work and Fate. Both Grandma and Tina listened with serious attention to everything I said, but at the bits about being "wanted at the highest levels," they both looked especially grim.
I also didn't see the need to get into the backstory of how I'd, you know, just quit my sales job.
Somehow, standing in this luxurious room in an Inn that was bound to be enchanting, I felt that the proprietor might be less than sympathetic with my choice. If Grandma Meredith had been in my shoes, I was pretty sure that she'd have beaten Nyle for that promotion… and she'd probably be running the company.
When I finished, there was a long pause.
And my stomach chose that moment to rumble like a dying hog.
"My goodness! Where are my manners?" Grandma said. "You haven't eaten since yesterday afternoon, at least! Come along down to the dining room and let us give you a proper welcome."
"Oh, that's all right," I said, though now that I thought of it, my stomach was aching with hunger. "I can wait. I'd really rather—"
"You're starving," Tina said. "I can tell."
"Really?" I said. Her certainty was slightly unnerving.
Grandma flicked Tina another strange little glance, and Tina said smoothly, "Sure! I see hungry people all day long. I work in the dining room. And sometimes the front desk. All over the Inn, really. Wherever I'm needed."
"Speaking of which," Grandma said. "We'd better go down and see how Hamish is holding up. We're getting on to the breakfast rush, and we've got a huge party this morning, a whole family reunion." She started walking toward the bedroom door.
"Wait!" I said. "You can't just… I mean, what is this place? How did you heal my wrist? I passed out last night. From this creepy wannabe wizard—"
Tina snorted. Even her snorts were adorable.
"That's just Uncle Barnaby," she said. "He's an—"
"Eccentric," Grandma said.
"He does say the hat helps him focus," Tina said.
"Tina," Grandma snapped, with a sharp twang.
Tina tried to look repentant, but her eyes sparkled.
Grandma turned to me with a courteous smile. "I assure you, Ms. Sassafras," she said, and her voice was honey-smooth, "you are due for a long and most enlightening conversation. But not on an empty stomach. Allow me to offer you a complimentary welcome to the finest dining in Wonder Springs."
At the word "complimentary," I relaxed a bit. As you may recall, my cards were maxed out, and my purse had about forty-seven cents.
"Thank you," I said. "But—"
"Excellent," Grandma said, and strode for the door.
Then I looked down and wailed. "Oh no!"
In the doorway, Grandma turned back and frowned. "Yes?"
I quailed a bit. Clearly, Grandma Had Spoken, and she was used to getting her way.
So was I.
"My shoes," I said, firmly. "I can't walk around in my stockings."
"Hmm," Grandma said, and she eyed my feet with grudging agreement. "Tina can take you past the Lost and Found. We have an astonishing supply of abandoned sneakers."
"Sneakers?" I said. "With this outfit?"
But she had already strode away.
"Is she always like that?" I asked Tina.
"Oh no," Tina said. She winked. "Sometimes she gets bossy."
"Tina, listen," I said. "You've got to fill me in here."
"I know, I know," she said. "I can't imagine what this must be like for you. But I know Grandma. She'll want you properly fed, and us past this morning rush, so we can all give this conversation our full focus. You know?"
"Not really," I said. "I've been trying to find my mom's family for, like, my whole adult life. Can't she just give me a name and address?"
"Oh, no," Tina said, horrified. "That would be awful, Summer. It's… it's really complicated."
"Great," I said. "I get it. They're all dead."
Tina laughed. "You're a real optimist," she said.
"So they are dead?"
"No! I mean, I don't know all the details…" Tina groaned in frustration. "Can we please just get some food in you? You are so hungry. Seriously, I can feel it."
She fixed me with those dark eyes. Playful, but pleading.
I sighed. "Fine."
"Hooray!" she said, completely free of irony, and practically glowing with happiness. "Oh, Summer. I'm so glad you're here."
"Um," I said. "Thanks."
Did she expect me to reciprocate with a mutual gush? I'd known this woman for less than fifteen minutes.
Right then, Mr. Charm perked up, and he leapt lightly to the floor.
"Oh my gosh!" Tina said. "Your cat!"
"Careful," I said. "He's sketchy around…"
But he was twining around Tina's legs, purring like a motorcycle.
"… strangers," I said.
"OH MY GOSH, he's ADORABLE!!" she gushed. She scooped up Mr. Charm and nuzzled his neck. Huh. That cat had always resisted nuzzling… with me. Now, in Tina's arms, if he tried to purr any louder, his ribs were going to crack.
"Traitor," I said. Then I caught myself and flashed Tina my best fake smile. "I'm totally joking."
"Oh no… you're not," she said, with infuriating compassion. She reached out to touch my arm, then awkwardly stopped herself and tried to fake like she'd meant to pet Charm. "Anyway, I love your cat, but we'd better hurry. Let's get you both some food."
And she walked off, carrying my cat.
I padded after her on the cool smooth floor, smoldering with pet envy and my growling empty stomach.
But as she led me through a fantastic warren of old halls and stairs and nooks and corners, I pretty much forgot to be mad.
Every room in the Inn was unique. I'd walk through a light-filled ballroom with a dome ceiling and a glittering bank of windows, then cut through a low cozy tavern room made entirely of brick: the walls, the floor, and even the ancient built-in hearth. The Inn seemed to have grown by fits and starts across time warps, like an English manor house. You could live here for decades, and never reach the end of its secrets.
The place had a kind of beauty magic. I'd spent my short adult life thus far in bleak conference rooms and offices and gridlock, but here it was all hardwood and brick and windows you could actually open, to cool spring air and the scent of blossoms.
And as we walked into a wide, tiled lobby, heading toward a hall with the oaken doors of the dining room, that scent was enriched with the luscious aromas of breakfast: the bite of bacon and the waft of fresh bread, the seductive promises of dark coffee and the forbidden delights of… pancakes.
How long had it been since I'd allowed my low metabolism to indulge in such a perilous feast?
"Wait here," Tina said, slipping behind the front desk with Charm still in her arms. "I'll be right back." And she vanished through a door into a back office.
The front desk here on the main floor was like a time travel machine to a classic movie. I half expected to see Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman trading sultry quips at the wooden counter, or a mysterious shady figure sneaking a note into one of the cubbies on the wall behind the desk.
I wasn't thrilled to be standing around basically barefoot in public, literally salivating outside the gates of breakfast paradise. But before I could get too frantic with hunger, Tina emerged. Instead of my cat, whom she had presumably deposited safely with some gourmet meal, she carried a pair of sneakers with roughly the appeal of bowling shoes.
"Sorry," she said. "It's all we had in your size."
"It's fine," I said, resigned. It wasn't like I was going to know anyone. And I slipped on the hideous sneakers and hustled after Tina into the airy, oak-paneled dining room.
Where I promptly spotted Nyle Pritchett.
Yes, that Nyle Pritchett. The bug-eyed tool with the styled beard who'd stolen my promotion.
Right here in Wonder Springs.
THUS ENDS YOUR FREE READ.
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