Start reading this book:
Present day, eleven days before Thanksgiving
Robinson Family Dinner had been a source of stability in a life full of devastating losses. I thought I was safe with my family, safe from them. When I could barely get out of bed, when it took everything I had just to feed Daisy and send her to school, someone in my family would come by and provide us with a home-cooked meal. On one memorable occasion after a particularly bad week, Mom had shoved me fully clothed into the shower. They were the only people I trusted would never betray me.
Until my mother destroyed our family before dessert was served.
I didn’t know how many times I could break and still be mended, but I must be close to totaled. So far, no amount of compartmentalizing or therapy quotes put me back together again.
“I don’t want to leave!” Daisy complained as I pulled her through the front door of my parents’ house, then handed her the coat I’d grabbed on the way out.
“Put this on,” I ordered, ducking my head against the ice-cold rain that pelted my face.
She grabbed the coat and shoved her arms through the opposite way, wearing it backward. I wanted to argue with her, but I didn’t have the energy.
The front door opened and my mom walked out, bathed in the porch light. “Eliza! Don’t leave until we’ve discussed this like adults!” she called.
“Twelve years, Mom. You lied to me for twelve years!”
“Stop fighting!” Daisy tried.
“You have a daughter. Are you telling me you wouldn’t do everything you can to protect her?”
I put my hands on my hips. “How was lying to Jake and me protecting us? You could’ve given us closure!”
Mom mirrored my position. “You would’ve lost all hope! And then she wouldn’t be back now.” My mother may look like me, light blue eyes and red hair with streaks of gray, but I didn’t recognize her anymore.
I shook my head in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Don’t use that tone with me, young woman!”
“You know I don’t tolerate lying.”
“And you think you’re a better mother because of it?”
“Yeah, I think I’ve got a leg up!”
The decorative gourds on Mom’s porch exploded, sending chunks of skin and seeds everywhere.
“STOP IT!” Daisy screeched.
We both looked at Daisy who had her hands over her ears and her eyes shut tight. A shimmering light dissipated around her.
I bent down so my face was level with hers and brushed her hands away. “Are you okay, baby girl?”
“Stop fighting,” she whispered.
“We’ve stopped. I promise. Let’s go.” I looked over my shoulder at my mom, who stood wide-eyed, glancing between the vegetable carnage and Daisy. “She’s okay, just overtired,” I explained. “She’ll call you later.”
Mom nodded. “And you?”
I shook my head and hurried Daisy to the car. I reached for the back door handle and swore when it didn’t budge. I made sure it was unlocked and tried again, but still nothing. I sucked in a sharp breath, making a mental note to get the car to the shop. Stupid latch.
Daisy brushed me out of the way. A scattering of blue sparks emitted from her hand, and then the door opened with ease. “I got it, Mom.”
“Thanks, baby,” I sighed, my voice stretched tight to cover the rest of my emotions. The magic fix wouldn’t last, but it would hold for a few days. “You can have tablet time.”
She nodded and grabbed the tablet from the back seat pouch as I closed the door and rounded the back of the car. My knees were shaking, and I held on to the trunk as I tried to put one foot in front of the other, without looking behind me. Mom had gone inside, but no doubt she’d be back to clean up the porch. I needed to go before she tried to stick another Band-Aid over the knife she’d plunged into my chest.
My spine stiffened as I turned to face the one person I never wanted to see again, Paris Evans. My new partner at Supernatural Human Accountability Partnership, known as SHAP. The woman we were celebrating tonight for saving Jake’s and his soul mate Poppy’s lives. The same woman who had destroyed mine.
I tried to tell her to go away, only to have a sob escape. The key ring around my finger hit my lip hard as I clamped my hand over my mouth. I closed my eyes and focused on relaxing the tightness in my throat.
“You can’t drive,” she stated.
I opened my eyes to find Paris standing too close, studying me as if I were three-week-old trash. I welcomed the heat of anger over the coldness of sadness. “Been doing it since I was fifteen. No tickets, no accidents,” I spat back.
“You’re shaking.” She pressed her lips together.
“I’m—” I held out my hand to prove her wrong, but it betrayed me. The voices of the dead poked at my mental defenses, always ready to pounce whenever I let my guard down. Their white noise stampeded into a loud static, blocking out the howl of the wind.
“Just let me drive you and Daisy home.” She reached out and grabbed my keys, her fingers brushing my knuckles.
My stomach dipped, and the voices immediately quieted like they always did when she was around. I dropped my hand and glared. “Don’t touch me.”
Paris gestured toward the passenger side.
“I know how cars work,” I barked, swiping at my eyes, then stepping away from her. I climbed in and slammed the door like a petulant child.
“If I did that, you’d ground me for two days,” my daughter, Daisy, said. At eight years old, she was full of sass and stubbornness, a combination of me and her late father.
“Damn straight,” I agreed.
“Then why do you get to do it?”
“Because I’m an adult.”
“I think that’s an excuse adults make to get away with things they know are wrong.”
She was right in this case. “One of the perks of getting older.”
Paris climbed into the driver’s side, filling the car with her soft sunshine and gardenia scent. It burned through me and robbed me of breath, as if I’d inhaled fire. I yanked at my seatbelt, but it twisted and fought back.
“Need help?” Paris asked.
“No,” I growled, tugging one last time. The belt finally released, and I nearly sighed in relief. “How are you going to get home? Your car is here.”
“I’ll figure it out,” she promised. She put on her own seatbelt with one smooth motion, then checked Daisy was buckled before starting the car and backing out of the driveway. Her long, thin fingers wrapped around the steering wheel, her grandma’s emerald ring sliding off center on her right middle finger. I turned away, resisting the unexpected impulse to take her likely cold hand in mine to warm it.
The rattle of the glovebox and the squeak of the windshield wipers filled the silence, and I focused on two raindrops racing down the passenger window. Another tear escaped and I tugged my sweater sleeve over my coat cuff to wipe it away. I could feel Paris’s eyes burning a hole in the side of my head, but I refused to acknowledge her.
My heart beat hard, trying to fight against the pressure building under my ribcage. The urge to scream, to cry, to break something swirled faster and faster until a tornado was trapped in my chest. Four more miles. I closed my eyes when we passed the cemetery, avoiding the temptation to stare at the sidewalk under the streetlamp.
“If you want to talk…” she began.
I clenched my jaw.
“No.” My parents had known we’d lose Poppy one day, that she was a grim reaper, and they never warned us, never confessed what happened when she disappeared. She had been my best friend and Jake’s first love, yet they’d refused to give us the closure we so badly needed. They’d let us search for her for years and only admitted their deception after a miraculous series of events had given Poppy her human life back.
“I know.” Paris navigated the left turn onto my street. “I’m sorry.”
Her apology weighed between us, as if it were not just a platitude about tonight, but an attempt to revisit our past. I shoved it away. Nearly everyone I loved had either ended up dead or betrayed me. I would do anything and everything to protect Daisy, to give her a life full of joy and smiles so she never had to feel her chest caving in. My inner circle could no longer be infiltrated, not even by my parents. It now only consisted of my daughter, Jake, Poppy, our friend Mina, and her partner Carma.
There was no more room for Paris in that life.
We pulled into the driveway and Paris shut off the car. The sudden silence was deafening. I focused on unbuckling my seatbelt as if it were open heart surgery. My body was a rung-out dishrag and it was still hours before Daisy’s bedtime. All I wanted was to pull the blankets over my head and sleep for days.
“Why is your bedroom light on?” Paris asked.
I ignored the pang in my chest at her remembering such a simple detail and narrowed my eyes at the small brick ranch. In an effort to keep the energy bills reasonable, I had a self-adjusting thermostat and never left lights on, except the porch light. So why was my bedroom light on?
We had been running behind after Daisy spilled juice on her first outfit. I’d rushed out of my bedroom to help her clean up. Could I have left it on?
“I’ll check it out,” she said, unbuckling and climbing out of the car.
“That’s not necessa—”
She closed the car door, then pulled her gun from a hidden holster and located my front door key on my chain.
I opened my car door. “The alarm’s on!” I warned, then growled. “Daisy, stay here.”
Daisy gave me a thumbs-up from the back seat, too engrossed in her game to care. I wished I could relax at that level. I shook my head and hurried after Paris while fumbling to grab the stun gun out of my purse.
I jumped up the porch step and barreled through the door and directly into Paris. She spun and grabbed my forearms to steady me. I sucked in a breath at the contact before rushing out, “Sorry! Didn’t expect you to be standing in the entrance.”
“I thought you said the alarm was on?” She let go of my arms and gestured to the panel.
“It is.” I looked at the panel which read disarmed. “How is that possible?” I grabbed my phone and opened the alarm app. Armed at 4:37pm via keypad. Disarmed at 5:15pm via app. It was now 5:45. I held up my phone to show Paris. I didn’t trust her farther than I could throw her, but she was still an active agent.
“Did you hit it by accident? Who else has your code?”
“Only the people at dinner,” I explained. “And I don’t remember turning it off, but maybe?” This whole day was super fuzzy. I usually only used my alarm via keypad, but after the time I forgot to turn it on a few weeks ago—although, I swear I had armed it—I downloaded the app. While the keypad couldn’t tell me how and when the alarm was activated, the app could.
“Wait here.” She side-stepped down the hall, peering into the living room, then the kitchen. I looked through the storm door to check on Daisy, who was still safely inside the car.
“Living room, kitchen, and Daisy’s room are clear,” Paris called.
I inched deeper into the house, looking around for anything out of place. I paused at the picture frame on the entertainment stand of Daisy and me at her last birthday party. My arms were around her shoulders as she blew out a candle on top of a pile of waffles with whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles, both of us wearing tiaras at her insistence. Paris had taken the picture.
The photo had been moved.
I hadn’t had time to dust recently with Daisy’s schedule, Jake nearly being killed, and Poppy returning. I ran my finger over the rectangular patch of dust free wood where the photo used to sit, as if it could give me answers. I turned around when I heard Paris’s footsteps.
“All the windows are closed, locked, and untampered with. The front door was locked,” she offered.
“Who would have a key and the alarm code and just sneak in to do nothing? Why would they leave the light on in my bedroom and not reset the alarm code? It doesn’t make sense.”
“You came home early.”
A chill ran down my spine. She was right. We usually went to my parents’ every Sunday night for dinner until eight. What if I hadn’t come home early? Would they have reset the code and turned off the light? I glanced back at the photo.
“This was moved.” I gestured to the dust-free patch.
Paris studied the photo then searched my face. “I’ll run it for fingerprints. I’ve got a kit in my—” she made a face. “I don’t have my truck.” All active field agents had a SHAP-issued SUV, black with bulletproof glass, strengthened body, and top-of-the-line safety features.
I gestured toward the front door. “Let me get Daisy inside and I can bag the photo for you, as long as you promise to bring it back.”
When I got to the front door, Daisy was already walking up the porch stairs. “Finished the level,” she said by way of explanation. “Didn’t even use magic this time.” She’d yawned most of the sentence.
“Proud of you.” Having a daughter with swiftly developing magical powers who hated to lose was a lesson in patience, for both of us.
She handed me the tablet as she walked into the house, then shrugged her jacket off and let it fall to the floor.
I cleared my throat.
“So tired,” she complained, but bent down and scooped it up, then shoved it onto her coat hook.
I studied her, noticing she looked paler than she did a half an hour ago. I cradled the side of her face in my hands for a full three seconds before she shoved me away. She didn’t have a fever, but she looked like she hadn’t slept for days. I’d been warned that the strength of her magic at such a young age would be hard on her. If we knew what kind of witch she was, there might be ways to mitigate her magic fatigue.
That information, however, died with Ben. My attempts to contact his parents or dig further back through his family tree had proved unsuccessful.
“Do you have the energy to shower?” I asked.
She lifted her shoulders. “I guess.”
“Shower and I’ll make you a snack. We can watch that ghost show you like.”
She nodded and moved to her bedroom with no enthusiasm. She paused in front of Paris. “I miss you.”
Paris looked as if Daisy had punched her in the stomach. “Me too,” she whispered back.
This was not a good idea. I cleared my throat. “Daisy…”
She huffed a dramatic sigh, then turned and went into her room.
I set the tablet on the counter, then grabbed a clear storage bag and carefully maneuvered the frame inside without touching the glass. I handed it to Paris.
She took it from me and studied it, smiling. “She looks so happy here.”
I smiled back. “It was a great birthday.”
“You’re a great mom.”
I blinked. That wasn’t what I expected her to say. “I—thank you.”
She nodded, her eyes unfocused, her thoughts clearly somewhere else. “I’ll work on this.” Her gaze sharpened and she looked up at me. “Unless you want me to stay?”
Her offer weighed heavy between us. If it had been before, if it had been someone else with identical beautiful brown eyes the color of dark chocolate, silky dark hair that I wanted to run my fingers through, and creamy skin with a small scar on her chin I’d kissed a hundred times, I would’ve said yes. I didn’t want to be alone tonight, knowing I wouldn’t sleep. Waking up at every sound, even after I changed the alarm code.
I shook my head. “How are you getting home?”
“I called a car.” She lifted her phone. “I’m sorry about tonight.”
“Wasn’t your fault.” This was one thing that wasn’t Paris’s fault. No, that blame rested solely on my parents’ shoulders. “Thanks for driving us home.”
“Anytime,” she rushed out. “Eliza…” She took a step forward as her phone buzzed. She looked down, hesitated, then nodded. “Car’s here. I’ll text.” She hurried out of the room as if it were on fire.
I followed her to the door and locked it, then changed the alarm code and armed the system. I stood in the middle of the hall, inhaling the remnants of Paris’s perfume. I needed to change, make something for dinner since we hadn’t finished eating, and find a way to shove all these inconvenient emotions into a neat little box I could put in the corner of my mind.
Daisy padded across the hall to the second bathroom and turned on the shower.
This jolted me from my spiraling. “Call me when you’re ready to comb!” I loved that she got my thick, curly hair, but it was a learning curve for a kid who still forgot in what order to use shampoo and conditioner. I’d installed a dispenser and told her to start on the left, which seemed to help.
I unbuttoned my shirt as I walked to my bedroom, yanking it off and unhooking my bra. I sighed at the release. I slipped into my sweats and hung up my dinner outfit.
The closet door was halfway closed before I gave into the urge. I shoved the door and clothes aside, revealing a false back. Fitting my fingers into small holes at the top and bottom, I slid it to the side revealing my evidence board.
I reached up and touched the photo of Ben. He was wearing a navy-blue suit for a friend’s wedding, hands in pockets, and smiling. Then I moved my finger to the list of people in the case file investigating his death.
I grabbed a pen from the shelf and circled Paris’s name for the fifth time. Why did it have to be her? Why was I always destined to lose what made me happy?
Loving Ben had been like jumping into a sports car with no seat belt and driving toward a concrete wall at a hundred miles an hour: fun, thrilling, terrifying, and knowing we were trapped on a one-way street, about to crash. We’d made it work because we wanted to raise our daughter together.
Loving Paris was like the beginning of spring, when everything came back to life, when the sun shone down from an endlessly blue sky, and there was this overriding feeling of hope. After too many years of pain and grief, Paris had been my own personal springtime. Until she turned into a brutal winter.
I stepped back and looked over the board, blue glitter yarn from one of Daisy’s forgotten craft projects connecting the dots between the hours before his death. The police report was only one page long, ruling Ben’s death an accident, that the motorcycle flipped over the Folk River Bridge and he drowned.
Ben taught courses on pursuit driving and was a licensed deep-sea diver. He didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs. I checked the printout of the weather report for the eight-hundredth time. Dry and fifty-five degrees. Wind speed topped at twelve miles an hour. Sunset had been only ten minutes before. Traffic was clear.
So what had really happened that night?
My phone buzzed and I yanked it from my pocket.
Jake: You make it home safe?
Me: We’re fine. You okay? Poppy?
Jake: All things considered. Wanna talk?
Me: Not tonight.
Jake: *thumbs-up emoji* See you tomorrow.
Jake: Want me to grab a pizza?
Me: I’ll want to cook
Jake: k. Love you
Me: night *sleeping emoji*
Me: Ps. Changed the alarm code to 9022
Jake: What happened???
Me: Everything’s fine
“Mom! I’m ready,” Daisy shouted.
I jumped at the interruption, then secured the closet’s false back. “Be right there!” I promised.
I moved the clothes back into place and then closed the closet doors. As I hurried out of the bedroom, a whiff of evergreen made me freeze in my tracks. I breathed sharply through my nose, then again. It was gone.
Had I imagined it? Did I want to talk to Ben so badly that I was phantom-smelling his cologne? I shook my head. It was probably just exhaustion from all the betrayal.
End of Excerpt