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Not many women worried about retribution from their long-dead great-grandfather, but Lauren Mackillop was no ordinary woman.
“Heading to Texas, are you?” the man standing next to her said as they queued for the check-in counter. “You won’t know what’s hit you.”
Oh, but she would.
Born under the stars, with a curse on her head to boot, she was well versed in rugged living and hadn’t wanted to go back to any of it. But here she was at LAX, flight booked.
“It’s hotter than a stolen tamale in Texas,” the man said.
Lauren ran her eyes over the top of his shiny, bald head and smiled her appreciation of his Texan-resident joke. “I know.” She flicked the tip of her tongue over her lips, enough to moisten them without disturbing her neutral-blush lipstick. It had cost a fortune and she’d have to make it last now.
“You are not defined by one thing.”
Lauren closed her eyes. “Grandmother, get out of my head.”
“Get your skinny butt back home now.”
Skinny butt? It was true, she was slim. Mostly genetics, but she didn’t eat much anyway, and in the future she might not be able to afford to eat at all—a fact her grandmother obviously wasn’t concerned about. Given what had just happened to her, she was already having nightmare visions of her future. Sad and lonely, eating packet after packet of pretzels. She didn’t like to depend on junk food to cure her miseries though, so she hardly ever ate them. Even though they were her absolute favorite.
“Don’t dally around the airport,” Ava said. “Or you’ll get yourself into more trouble than you can deal with.”
Lauren attempted to shut out the telepathic mental communication she had with her grandmother, but she’d been born with it and it wasn’t easy to silence. Especially when Ava wanted to voice her opinions. She’d probably been polishing her runes and knew something Lauren didn’t. Not that Ava needed accoutrements to portend someone’s fate.
As for trouble! She had a Louis Vuitton suitcase full. Secondhand Louis Vuitton, but still…
“Do you know what the delay is for?” she asked the little man with the bald head.
The line was at least fifty people long. A check-in person at the counter was moving his hands in explanation of something, but she was so far back she couldn’t hear what was being said.
“Something to do with a bird flying into the engine of a plane as it was taxiing. Threw a wrench into the takeoffs and landings. Everyone’s circling.”
Lauren tapped the heel of her ankle boot on the tiled floor.
“Been in California long?” the man asked.
“Six years.” Couldn’t he tell by the perfect barely there tan? The hazel highlights woven through the chestnut-brown layered bob, lengths of which framed her face and swung down her back? Couldn’t he see the Vogue look, played down with a dash of Hollywood urban chic?
Or did he just see a woman wearing another woman’s castoffs?
If only she were going home as the successful woman she’d hoped to be when she’d left. Someone who hadn’t had her business taken from her. Someone who appeared poised and a little mysterious—although not in an eerie way.
She cast a quick glance at her clothes. She’d needed a classy veneer for her clients and customers but not anymore. So, she’d chosen low-key with her outfit today. She was heading for her hometown of Surrender in Calamity Valley in the Texas Panhandle. There’d be little need of couture.
She sported dark-wash denim jeans, a large leather, stitched-and-tasseled tote bag that had cost its original owner two-thousand dollars and Lauren a hundred bucks, and matching pale lilac suede ankle boots.
“I was doing so well with my business,” she told the man, needing to voice it out loud because she still couldn’t understand how she’d let disaster through the door and shatter everything she’d worked so hard for.
She’d owned and run the In Need of Loving boutique in Santa Ynez, Santa Barbara County. A mere one hundred twenty-five miles from Los Angeles—she couldn’t afford anything in LA, although Santa Ynez was pricey enough. Still, her shop slotted beautifully between the historic facades of the businesses on the main street. She’d even acquired a few select customers in LA. Obscenely wealthy women who bought on a whim and discarded on a sigh of discontent. She picked up their preloved, sometimes never-worn, clothing and accessories for a song and sold them in her boutique.
“What happened to your business?” the bald man asked.
“I lost it.”
Her shop was boarded up now. Traded on and about to be turned into a steakhouse. They’d probably make a fortune, since it was two doors down from the saloon where her trashy business partner had lost In Need of Loving in a card game.
She never wanted to see another saloon as long as she lived. She never wanted to be reminded of backroom poker games, where sharks with laid-back demeanors bet for fun on people’s livelihoods.
She rotated her shoulder, the soft jersey of her pearl-gray scoop-neck top sliding off a little. She pulled her aviators off the top of her head and onto her nose, covering her eyes and resisting the urge to look behind her. She felt as though someone was watching her, and she didn’t want to be seen. It was probably just the disturbance of her grandmother being in her head, and everything she now faced—the unknown.
“The name’s Frankie,” the bald-headed man said, sticking out his stubby hand. “Frankie Caruso.”
He didn’t look like a Frankie Caruso. He looked like a plain old Bob Smith.
Lauren accepted his handshake. It wasn’t his fault he was irritating, it was Lauren’s mood. But it might be best to remain anonymous. “Scarlet Juliette Barrett-Bernard,” she said, making up the name on the spur of the moment.
His eyebrows shot up. “Is that so? What a fancy name.”
It was as far from Lauren Mackillop as she could get.
“Child,” her grandmother said. “Don’t put yourself in a situation you can’t easily get out of.”
What did that mean? The problem was Ava wasn’t a typical granny. She and her sisters were mystics, oracles, and soothsayers and a force to be reckoned with. What Ava had was the gift of insight at its finest. Precognition of the future. Prophetic predictions.
Unnerving, since she’d warned Lauren about the trashy business partner, but had Lauren listened?
She was supposed to have this ability, too, and obviously didn’t! Although she’d never wanted the Mackillop gift and was content with the telepathic conversations with her grandmother—which she never spoke about. She didn’t want to believe she had greater powers loitering inside her, ready to burst out. She wouldn’t know what to do with them, for a start.
“So what’s sending you to Texas, Miss Barrett-Bernard?” Frankie Caruso asked.
She offered a wan smile. “I just buried my thieving business partner.” The funeral costs had taken a fair whack of her remaining money. “He lost my business in a poker game.” He didn’t deserve to be buried; he deserved to be left to rot in the street. But Lauren had a conscience. “He was shot in the back by underworld crime lords.” That was a lie, but what did a little fib matter now? He’d died choking on a chunk of pineapple—just desserts, if anyone wanted Lauren’s opinion. He’d forged her signature on a new contract that gave him 78 percent ownership of In Need of Loving and the means to dispose of it in any way he saw fit.
A poker game!
Frankie Caruso’s jaw went slack. “Right. Well—best of luck, and all that.”
“I won’t need luck. I have my grandmother.”
“Looking out for you, is she?”
Lauren wasn’t sure if Ava was so much looking out for her as forcing her hand. “Something like that.” Her bottom lip trembled and she bit it. She blinked through unexpected tears and turned her head away.
Going back to Surrender under such demoralizing circumstances hurt. But Donaldson’s Property Development had been hounding the ninety-seven Calamity Valley residents to sell their land, so her family was working on a last-ditch effort at increasing tourist interest, to prove to people there was no need to sell. Lauren was supposed to come up with an idea for Surrender, since she had a small amount of cash and no pressing engagements in life.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love the valley and her hometown—she did, with every beat of her heart. It was just that she’d left on a high, business plans pouring out of her. Now, she’d lost that business. Who in Surrender would want to listen to her suggestions for commercial growth? She was nothing but a fake, with a suitcase full of other women’s designer clothing and exclusive one-offs.
She glanced down at the Manolo Blahnik boots she’d bought from a producer’s wife for fifty bucks. Maybe shoes didn’t count…
At least she wouldn’t be alone in the valley. Her cousin Molly was back in her hometown of Hopeless. Their cousin, Pepper, refused to budge from Arizona though, let alone return to her hometown of Reckless. And here was Lauren, on her way to Surrender, to do—what? She didn’t have a clue, but she had a niggling feeling her grandmother was up to something.
A movement in the queue brought her out of her thoughts. A guy in an airline uniform was walking along the line of people, explaining something.
Thank goodness! It looked like they’d be underway soon. All this waiting around wasn’t doing anything for her nerves.
She squared her shoulders and inhaled deeply. That wasn’t the way to think. She was going home and she had a job to do. Just because she’d made a huge error of judgment in the recent past didn’t mean she’d make another.
“I’m sorry, people,” the airline employee said, apologetic and defensive all at once. “Traffic is experiencing gate hold and taxi delays are long. There’s nothing we can do about it. You’ve got a five-hour holdup.”
Lauren sighed. Great start to the rest of my life.
End of Excerpt