When the one person she trusts – her online employer and best friend, Darcy Harris – dies, Morgan lands in rural Minnesota, stranded with Darcy’s messy house and a smashed hard drive, locking away access to her website and work. Morgan hires IT Specialist Nick Hawkins who promises to unravel the damage and get her up and running again.
Disturbing phone calls and recovered data arouse the suspicions of local police. Morgan’s first instinct is to break ties and flee. But Minnesota’s so welcoming, and Nick’s so sweet…
And Darcy’s killer is watching her every step.
Autumn Arch Publishing
Trade Paperback, eBook
Genre: Women’s Fiction, Suspense
Read An Excerpt:
Darcy can’t really be dead, Morgan thought, clutching damp tissues and trying not to feel overwhelmed. After spending much of her twenty-seven years running through large cities, she stared at the sedate, wide-open space of rural Minnesota as if it were an alien landscape. She’d been born in Madison, fostered in Milwaukee, ran away to Chicago, to Detroit, Indianapolis. Always cities. A person could disappear in a city, become another bug in the swarm, but everything stood out in the country. One little deviation from the norm brought notice. One little tree. One stone. One farmhouse.
One city girl with nowhere else to run to.
At least until her only friend and website partner had unexpectedly died.
A copy of Darcy’s will lay on Morgan’s lap, the top page speckled and smeared by her tears. Pages three and four had insisted Morgan visit rural Minnesota and endure an apparently endless sales pitch from Ms. K Bennet, the financial advisor driving her to Darcy’s house.
After hearing at least five miles worth of gibberish on the benefits of using the firm to convert annuities to equity instruments—whatever that meant—Morgan sighed and pressed her forehead against the window. God, she wanted to run, to feel pavement and earth beneath her scuffed Nikes, the wind tugging at her ponytail, and hot summer sunshine on her shoulders instead of being cooped up in a leather-scented car with a woman who only cared about selling market indices and accounts.
Bennet insisted Morgan, as the new sole owner of Pony and Mule Web Development, should consider the ease of asset allocation services and integration options on her websites.
“I just write articles and reviews for FrugallyUrban. I don’t know anything about the business end,” Morgan said, but Bennet continued, assuring her that putting links back to her financial consulting office was simple and would provide added benefits to Morgan’s site customers.
Morgan barely listened as they drove past a farmhouse with a partly-built addition off one side; just golden wooden studs, plywood floor, and a roof. Morgan bet pretty much everyone within five miles knew exactly who was building the addition, why they were building it, how much they spent, and who did the work. Then they’d debate the merits of all of those things over coffee in a diner or farmhouse kitchen somewhere. She shuddered.
Maybe a mile, mile and a half past the farmhouse, Bennet braked, slowing to a sedate pace as they passed a large, cheery sign saying Welcome To Hackberry, Pop. 586 – along with smaller signs for Hackberry Lions, Hackberry Lutheran Church, Hackberry VFW, and a cardboard reminder to donate to the Hackberry Youth Can Drive.
Darcy’s hometown. Only she wasn’t in it anymore.
Morgan pushed a wayward strand of dark hair aside and rubbed her forehead. I can’t do this. I just can’t. Darcy, I’m so sorry, I ca—
Bennet pulled into a driveway and turned off the car. “We’re here. Are you ready to examine the real estate portion of your portfolio?”
Morgan jumped as if slapped and slowly lowered her hand. The house looked exactly like the pictures Darcy had posted—yellow craftsman bungalow with some trees here and there, marigolds and petunias in the flowerbeds, and a swing on the porch. Kids rode by on bikes, their chatter barely heard over the pained slam of Morgan’s heart.
C’mon, Darcy, she thought, eyes stinging. Open the front door already. You’re still here. You’re still alive. You have to be. You can’t leave me all alone with this pushy woman.
Morgan sat, shaking and staring at the porch swing, until Bennet came around and opened her door.
Bennet offered a hand to help her stand and Morgan took it without thinking. Bennet’s palm was warm and sweaty, her grip tentative. The air smelled of fresh-mown grass. Swallowing past the constriction of her throat, Morgan ducked back into the car for her backpack and smoothed her cutoffs before following Bennet. Her feet on the concrete steps made a solid, welcoming thud as she climbed them, and she paused to touch the porch railing. The paint was cracked, but not yet peeling, slightly rough beneath her fingers. Homey. Worn.
While Bennet searched for the key, Morgan looked out to the neighborhood. Houses much like Darcy’s all faced the paved highway and clumps of roadside mailboxes on posts. An enormous tractor rumbled by and a pair of little girls on bikes with training wheels resumed riding circles in the road. They couldn’t have been more than five or six years old and Morgan watched them as if they were fairies in an old fantasy novel.
They rode around and around, laughing and unfettered by parents. The girls leisurely pedaled to the nearest lawn whenever a car came near, then returned to circles on the smooth pavement. One, with long auburn hair halfway down the back of her sundress, barely needed the training wheels at all.
“Miss Miller?” Bennet asked, her voice frustrated.
Morgan turned, shaking her head. “Yes? What?”
Bennet held the wooden screen door open, darkness beckoning from within. “Do you want to come in?”
Morgan hesitated, then entered. The air felt closed up and stale despite the window air conditioner laboring gamely to her right and another whirring somewhere far off to her left. Beneath the staleness she smelled dog and a faint, faded wisp of Murphy’s Oil Soap, surely from the oak floors and trim. Torn storage boxes stood stacked in the corner and a rug lay rolled up against the far wall. A horsey wallpaper border circled the room and horse figurines pranced on every available surface. Horses, horses, everywhere.
Gut clenching, Morgan held her panic tight as she placed her backpack beside the door and kept her gaze away from the fearsome beasts endlessly leaping about.
Bennet pressed a ring of keys into Morgan’s hand. “These are for the front door. We couldn’t find any for the back.” She shrugged slightly and strode past, letting the screen bang closed behind her. “I don’t think she ever locked it. Pity. Someone came in and trashed the place. Probably kids. Several valuable items were damaged, and some of the equine statuary was stolen, but we had it tidied up. At least it didn’t lower the value of the property.”
Some were stolen? Good God, how many horses did Darcy have? Morgan flinched away from the figurines and followed, letting Bennet lead her through Darcy’s cluttered, horse-crammed house like an inept Realtor. She pointed out obvious features—Look! There’s the stove!—and Morgan soon wished she’d quit yammering. The house had three bedrooms and a full bath upstairs, a powder room, junk room, and home office down, plus a dining room and a sprawling kitchen devouring the back quadrant of the main floor. The whole place felt like Darcy, her lacy blues and purples, clotted with too many horsey knickknacks, braided rugs, and piles of papers, even a battered saddle in the corner of the den. Each cluttered room gave Morgan both a grimace of fear and a welcoming ache in her heart.
Bennet found the door to the basement and, fumbling for a light, pointed down into the dark. “Here’s the basement,” she said with tired, false cheer. “The light’s right here,” she said, shrugging. “Somewhere.”
“It’s okay,” Morgan mumbled, moving to the kitchen sink. A clean teacup sat upside down in a dish strainer. A bottle of Lemon Joy and a scrubby sponge in a saddle-shaped holder were placed to the right of the faucet. All were slightly marred by a thin layer of dust. “I can find it later.”
Bennet smoothed her blazer and said, “Since you’ve been Miss Harris’s website business partner for so long and you’re surely tech-savvy, I’d like to take a moment to explain our online market analysis services.”
Morgan shook her head. “Not now, okay?”
“But, Miss Miller,” Bennet said, “with today’s markets, any moment of hesitation is money lost. You need to consider how to best invest your assets. I know you’ve only received limited payments from the joint accounts, but once the rest has gone through probate, your remaining funds will be quite substant—”
“She just died,” Morgan said, wandering away. “Please. Let me deal with that. I can’t talk about money now.”
“Your friend died three weeks ago,” Bennet said, her voice measured and strained, “and your assets have languished all that time. Fortune favors the bold, after all. She barely waited a full day after her mother’s death to aggressively prepare for the financial security you’ve now acquired but do not seem to comprehend.”
Morgan shrugged and took a steadying breath. I just found out yesterday she’d died. It might be three weeks for you, but it’s too soon for me to think about money.
The pair of windows over a dinged Formica table opened to the back yard, fully fenced in tall, wooden planks. The fence met an ancient garage in the corner with a doghouse built into the closest side. She saw food and water dishes, both overflowing with old leaves and dead grass. She counted six balls piled beside the doghouse, a hunk of knotted blue rope, and something shaped like a giant Cootie toy, without the legs.
“Where’s Ranger?” Morgan asked, still gazing out the windows.
Bennet continued to explain how their financial advisors could take her nest egg and expand its earning potential, but she stopped when Morgan turned to her.
“Where’s Ranger?” she asked again.
“Ranger?” Bennet asked, her brow furrowing. “I don’t know of anyone—”
“Her dog.” Morgan tried not to let her frustration show. “Ranger’s Darcy’s dog.”
Bennet flicked her hand as if shooing a fly. “Oh. The dog. Off to the shelter, I suppose.”
“What? Darcy loved her dog! How could you—”
“Miss Miller, I did nothing of the sort. It’s common practice that pets are taken to a shelter to be cared for if no family or friends step forward to claim immediate custody of them. You have much more pressing concerns than a dog. Since you’re so prone to distraction, perhaps you should simplify matters and authorize me to manage your accounts on your behalf. I have papers right here.”
I might be grieving, but I’m not dumb, Morgan thought, giving Bennet a quick glance before shaking her head. “No, I’ll get to it. Just not now, okay? Maybe in a few days. Next week. I don’t know.”
Her gaze lit upon bits of Darcy’s life: a wire basket of tea packets—surely consisting of Apple, Peppermint, and Blackberry, Darcy’s favorites—sitting beside a box of dog biscuits. The pile of notepads with a leash on top. A big bowl of half-eaten dog food on a lucky-horseshoe mat near the back door. A rawhide strip beneath a kitchen chair with a thick, quilted pad on the seat.
Ranger might be locked up in dog jail, she thought, panicking. Or he might be dead, put to sleep because no one wanted him, because I didn’t recognize the accountant’s number on my phone. Because I thought it was a telemarketer. Darcy and Ranger. Both gone. Oh, God.
Her hands balled and she ground her knuckles into her eye sockets. Not gonna cry. Not gonna cry. Damn it, Morgan you are NOT gonna cry! She stumbled back until she slammed against the counter. Across from her, in the bowels of the refrigerator, the ice-maker clinked. Otherwise, Bennet and the house were silent, unable to do anything more than watch her.
Eye pain helped Morgan focus, helped her feel more real, more solid. I can’t let Ranger die. I can’t.
She took a breath, a shaky one, and lowered her hands. “Take me to the shelter. I have to get Ranger.”
Bennet grimaced in obvious disgust. “Excuse me?”
“You said he was mine in the will. That means he’s an asset, right? So I want to go get him.”
“First of all, Miss Miller, dogs are not assets. Second, if he was taken to the shelter, he’s surely gone by now. It’s been almost a month.”
“We have to try.”
Bennet sighed, long and deep, then shook her head and opened her briefcase. “Miss Miller, there is no ‘we’. I have flown you in from Baltimore, read you the will, and escorted you to your house and its contents in the belief that you might be interested in my services, but you can’t be bothered to unfreeze the bulk of your assets, let alone consider building your quite-promising financial future. Instead, you’re wasting my time fretting over a worthless dog?”
Fuming, Bennet pulled out a large manila envelope and thrust it at Morgan. “I have no duty, or desire, to drive all the way back to Albert Lea to search the shelter for a dog that surely isn’t there, a dog you yourself cannot identify, then bring you and the filthy beast back here in my car. My duties are—”
“I can identify him!” Morgan said as she struggled to catch the overstuffed packet, since Bennet let go before she’d gripped it. “He’s a, uh, shepherd-retriever mix. Yeah, that’s it. Shepherd-retriever mix.”
“What breed of retriever?”
Morgan shook her head, confused. There are different breeds?
“Does he have identifying marks?” Bennet asked, her voice rising. “White spots? Black feet? Anything to distinguish him from other mutts?”
Morgan clutched the envelope, wrinkling the paper. “I don’t know, I’ve never seen—”
Bennet took a step toward her. “Is he neutered?”
“I, uh… I think so,” Morgan said, backing away.
“How big is he? Is he house-trained? Paper-trained? Does he do tricks? Does he wear a collar, and if so what kind and color?”
“Uh. A collar?”
Bennet glowered then stomped to her briefcase and snapped it closed. “You can’t identify the dog, Miss Miller. Perhaps if you’d been quicker to answer your phone messages you would have arrived soon enough to save him.”
“That’s not fair. I had no idea Darcy—”
“You need to answer your phone in a timely manner, Miss Miller. Prompt and open communication is essential for day-to-day life. As is dedicated asset management. Both are skills you obviously lack.”
Bennet continued, undaunted. “Your missing dog is not my fault and I won’t be held responsible. He’s your dog. You find him.”
Morgan blinked at the unexpected anger fluttering in her belly. “How can I—”
“I have to go.” Bennet turned and strode toward the front of the house. “Your power and water bills have been paid through the end of the month,” she said over her shoulder as Morgan followed her. “I suggest you review them and the other household paperwork in that envelope, assuming you don’t lose yourself daydreaming. There are several documents to sign. All are very important. Perhaps you should pay attention to them, since you obviously can’t pay attention to me.”
“Wait. What documents?”
“They’re in the packet along with the checks from the joint accounts.” She paused at the door and turned to frown at Morgan. “I am not your friend, Miss Miller. I was hired to fetch you, inform you, deliver you, and explain our services in the hope you would maintain accounts with our company. I’ve done that. I am not willing to be your personal chauffer, or transport an animal in my car, while you mindlessly stare out the windows. If you need additional financial advice, my card is in the packet.” She gave Morgan a final nod and said, “Good day, Miss Miller.”
Before Morgan could respond, Bennet shoved through the screen door and stomped across the porch. Muttering, she huffed down the steps to her car, slammed herself in, and drove away.
Morgan stood gaped-mouthed on the porch, manila envelope clenched against her chest. Her mind stumbled, tripping over the same obvious facts. This tiny town had no busses, no cabs, no train stations, and no large towns within jogging distance. After years of nearly effortless freedom wandering from city to city on the East coast, she felt trapped, surrounded for miles by corn and soybean fields, and had no one to help her escape.
She stared, numb, out to the road. How can I survive in the middle of nowhere when I don’t drive?