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Favorite book of all time!
28 July 2021 (13:24)
It's really good. 9/10
31 August 2021 (18:31)
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ this book is a MUST READ
14 September 2021 (21:32)
I finished this book really fast. It was perfect! I loved it, I loved how they had more trust in each other than on what other people had to say about them. They weren’t perfect but they were perfect for each other… I really recommend this book♥️
15 September 2021 (09:05)
I loved this novel so much!!! This love is so unique from others; two broken people fixing each other.., supporting each other. And yes, archer's voice is the most beautiful voice.
21 September 2021 (21:10)
This was so delicate but gut-wrenching
I'm feeling achy just writing abt it
'Sapphire' I couldn't have put it into better words myself
read thissss so we can be emotionally unstable OK?OK
I'm feeling achy just writing abt it
'Sapphire' I couldn't have put it into better words myself
read thissss so we can be emotionally unstable OK?OK
16 November 2021 (15:07)
My heart beats for this book. This is such a beautiful book, I can't put into words. The storyline is so beautiful and it covers so many painfully beautiful problems and insecurities and how to overcome that. 2 people on a journey of healing found each other and made the most beautiful couple you can imagine.
This book is amazing and I highly recommend it to anyone reading this comment
This book is amazing and I highly recommend it to anyone reading this comment
29 November 2021 (08:41)
This book was so good!! Archer literally has my heart
02 February 2022 (19:49)
5/5 , will reread it without a doubt ! Archer is literally everything
18 February 2022 (09:27)
Este libro es todo lo que está bien. Archer tiene mi corazón.
23 February 2022 (18:12)
Ngl I teared up quite a bit while reading this book, it's sweet and wholesome and full of trauma and I love how there's healing and understanding etched into this book's existence, it's truly phenomenal... A sold 3.9/5 for me, I'm slightly mean I know but I loved, enjoyed and felt this book and it's words in my soul. It's a great book, pick it up, you won't regret it. I promise;). Also it has quite a few 18+ scenes and also mentions R*pe, gun vio*ence, Dr*gs, and a few other triggering subjects so please research on it before you read the book, they're all lovely except a few mfs but it's beautiful and I enjoyed it a lot... happy reading luvs
24 February 2022 (15:16)
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A beautiful masterpiece
04 March 2022 (11:38)
This book is truly so well written and beautifully presented. The way Archer and Bree describe the love they have for each other is so amazing.
09 March 2022 (11:54)
one of my favorites of all time.
16 March 2022 (13:52)
One of my favorite books ever ! PLEASE READ IT
20 March 2022 (11:27)
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ this is the best book ive ever read, and i love it so so so muchhh!!!
25 March 2022 (08:21)
read it y'll, its worth it to read
25 March 2022 (08:22)
AMAZING AMAZING BOOK . YOUR SIGN TO READ THIS BOOK !!! DONT THINK TWICE . Archer is just * chef's kiss * . 5 stars
28 March 2022 (17:38)
almost finish with this one, all i can say I love Bree and Archer so much and it hurts my hurt thinking I'm almost done ?
11 April 2022 (22:44)
Go for it. The storyline is so well written.
03 May 2022 (00:03)
I almost cried... BRILLIANT AND TOUCHING
16 May 2022 (21:48)
I’m telling you this rn. This book is so heartfelt and you can feel all the emotions. Definitely a book worth staying up all night to read it. The feeling of reading a book for the first time is incredible, but reading this one was different. So many scenes from it are relatable and beautifully written. I marked so many parts from it, everything about the book was just a feeling no-one can describe the raw emotions and the feeling of having no-one to talk to for a long time and suddenly you’re telling them your story will forever be something I love about books.
22 June 2022 (10:17)
This book took my breath away! ?? So dammm well written ❤ I am at loss of words right now completely overwhelmed!
Definitely a must read and 5 star book!
Archer Hale and Bree Prescott have my whole dam heart ❤
Definitely a must read and 5 star book!
Archer Hale and Bree Prescott have my whole dam heart ❤
23 June 2022 (23:04)
My heart stopped beating for a minute, when Archar got shot and she said he was gone...
29 June 2022 (20:47)
Ohk so it was reallllly on the lovey dovey side. Bree is hands down an amazing woman. She held it down for Archer, great read.
08 July 2022 (17:56)
yeah this is the best thing ever pls read
12 July 2022 (18:08)
One of my best read
21 July 2022 (15:42)
Such a beautiful book,and a heartbreaking story
21 July 2022 (18:29)
OMG. Next favourite book check!! I’m not a fan of sad tragic stories but THIS had my heart and me sobbing! I can’t tell how much I love this story and everything it made me feel for individuals who are literally silently struggling to get by. The last 5 chapters had me crying at 2 a.m in my bed reading this book. I love every bit of it, all the heartwarming romance, the mysteries of the past that were well revealed across the book, the emotional struggles portrayed, the self build up and I guess everything just got intensified cause all of it was put out not by sound but just my signed words. A total 5/5 🌟
31 July 2022 (11:30)
Got angry to myself for reading the book so fast 😩 ITS SO GOOD. Also, I need recommendations for this kind of book please I’m begging
20 August 2022 (14:03)
I absolutely loved and adored this book. 11/10
10 September 2022 (11:52)
Great book!!! Lovely story.
21 September 2022 (05:14)
Archer's Voice A Sign of Love Novel Mia Sheridan This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. Copyright © 2014 by Mia Sheridan. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. Dedication This book is dedicated to my boys, Jack, Cade and Tyler. The world needs as many good men as possible. I'm proud to be putting three of them out there. Brothers 'til the end. Table of Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Epilogue The Legend of Chiron the Centaur The Centaurs as a group, were known to be rabble rousers, given to drunkenness and rowdy, lusty behavior. But Chiron wasn't like the rest–he was called the 'Good Centaur,' and 'The Wounded Healer,' wiser, gentler, and more just than those of his kind. Sadly, he was shot by his friend, Hercules, with a poisoned arrow when Hercules was fighting the other centaurs. Because Chiron was immortal, he was unable to find relief from this incurable wound, and lived his life in agonizing pain. Eventually, Chiron came upon Prometheus who was suffering an agony as well. Prometheus had been sentenced to eternal torment by the Gods and was tied to a rock, where, every morning, an eagle was sent to eat Prometheus' liver, and every evening, it grew back. Chiron offered to willingly give up his life for Prometheus, therefore setting them both free from their eternal torment. Chiron dropped dead at Prometheus' feet. But because of his g; oodness and service, Zeus made Chiron a part of the stars, the constellation, Sagittarius, where his beauty could be gazed upon for all time. Chiron's wound symbolizes the transformative power of suffering–how personal pain, both physical and emotional, can become the source of great moral and spiritual strength. CHAPTER 1 Archer – Seven Years Old, April "Grab my hand! I got you," I said real soft, the helicopter lifting off the ground as Duke grabbed Snake Eyes' hand. I was trying to play as quiet as I could–my mama was banged up again and I didn't want to wake her where she was sleeping up in her room. She'd told me to watch cartoons up in bed with her and I had for a while, but when I saw she was asleep, I'd come downstairs to play with my G.I. Joe toys. The helicopter landed and my guys jumped out and ran under the chair that I had put a towel over to make into part of an underground bunker. I picked the helicopter up and lifted it off the ground again with a whop, whop, whop sound. I wished I could snap my fingers and make this a real helicopter. Then I'd pull my mama onto it and we'd fly away from here–away from him, away from the black eyes and my mama's tears. I didn't care where we'd end up as long as it was far, far away. I crawled back into my bunker and a few minutes later, I heard the front door open and close, and then heavy footsteps walking through our foyer and down the hall toward where I was playing. I peeked out and saw a pair of shiny black shoes and the cuffs of what I knew were uniform pants. I crawled out as fast as I could saying, "Uncle Connor!" as he kneeled down and I threw myself into his arms, making sure to stay clear of the side where he kept his gun and police flashlight. "Hey, little man," he said, hugging me to him. "How's my rescue hero?" "Good. See the underground fortress I built?" I said, leaning away and proudly pointing back over my shoulder at the fort I had made under the table using blankets and towels. It was pretty cool. Uncle Connor smiled and glanced behind me. "I sure do. You did a good job there, Archer. I've never seen a fortress quite as impenetrable-looking as that one." He winked and smiled bigger. I grinned. "Wanna play with me?" I asked. He messed my hair, smiling. "Not right now, buddy. Later, okay? Where's your mama?" I felt my own face fall. "Um, she's not feeling real good. She's laying down." I looked into Uncle Connor's face and golden brown eyes. The picture that popped into my head right away was the sky before a storm–dark and sort of scary. I moved back slightly, but as quick as that, Uncle Connor's eyes cleared and he pulled me into him again, squeezing me. "Okay, Archer, okay," he said. He set me back from him and held onto my arms as his eyes moved over my face. I smiled at him and he smiled back. "You have your mama's smile, you know that?" I smiled bigger. I loved my mama's smile–it was warm and beautiful and it made me feel loved. "But I look like my daddy," I said, looking down. Everyone said I had the Hale look about me. He just stared at me for a minute, looking like maybe he wanted to say something, but then changed his mind. "Well, that's a good thing, buddy. Your daddy's a handsome devil." He smiled at me, but it didn't move up into his eyes. I looked at him, wishing I looked like Uncle Connor. My mama told me once that he was the most handsome man she'd seen in her whole life. But then she'd looked guilty like she shouldn't have said that. Probably because he wasn’t my daddy, I guessed. Also, Uncle Connor was a police officer–a hero. When I grew up, I was gonna be just like him. Uncle Connor stood up. "I'm gonna go see if your mama's awake. You play with your action figures and I'll be down in a minute, okay, buddy?" "Okay." I nodded. He messed my hair again and then walked toward the steps. I waited a couple minutes and then I followed him up silently. I stepped around every squeak, holding on to the banister to move me forward. I knew how to be quiet in this house. It was important that I knew how to be quiet in this house. When I got to the top of the stairs, I stood just outside the door to my mama's room, listening. The door was just open a crack, but it was enough. "I'm okay, Connor, really," my mama's soft voice said. "You're not okay, Alyssa," he hissed, his voice breaking at the end in a way that scared me. "Jesus. I want to kill him. I'm done with this, Lys. I'm done with the martyr routine. You might think you deserve this, but Archer. Does. Not," he said, spitting out the last three words in a way that let me know that his jaw was tight like I'd seen it before. Usually, when my daddy was around. I heard nothing but my mama's soft crying for a few minutes before Uncle Connor spoke again. This time his voice sounded strange, no expression in it. "You wanna know where he is right now? He left the bar and went home with Patty Nelson. He's screwing her three ways from Sunday in her trailer. I drove by and could hear it from inside my car." "God, Connor," my mama's voice choked out. "Are you trying to make this worse–" "No!" his voice roared and I jumped slightly. "No," he said more quietly now. "I'm trying to make you see that it's enough. It's enough. If you think you needed to pay a penance, it's paid. Don't you see that? You were never right in that belief, but for the sake of argument, let's say you were–it's paid up, Lys. It's long since paid up. Now we're all paying. Christ, do you wanna know what I felt when I heard the sounds coming out of that trailer? I wanted to bust in there and beat the shit out of him for humiliating you, disrespecting you that way. And the fuck of it all is that I should be happy that he's with someone other than you, anyone other than the woman that is so fucking deep under my skin, I couldn't dig you out with a jackhammer. But instead, I felt sick about it. Sick, Lys. Sick that he wasn't treating you right, even though him treating you right might mean I could never have you again." It was quiet from inside the room for a couple minutes and I wanted to peek inside, but I didn't. All I heard was my mama's soft crying and some slight rustling. Finally, Uncle Connor went on, his voice quiet now, gentle, "Let me take you away from here, baby, please, Lys. Let me protect you and Archer. Please." His voice was filled with something I didn't know the name for. I sucked in a quiet breath. He wanted to take us away from here? "What about Tori?" my mama asked quietly. It was a couple seconds before Uncle Connor answered, "I'd tell Tori I was leaving. She'd have to know. We haven't had any kind of real marriage for years anyway. She'd have to understand." "She won't Connor," my mama said, sounding scared. "She won't understand. She'll do something to get even with us. She's always hated me." "Alyssa, we're not kids anymore. This isn't about some stupid competition shit. This is about real life. This is about me loving you. This is about us deserving to have a life together. This is about me, you and Archer." "And Travis?" she asked quietly. There was a pause. "I'll work something out with Tori," he said. "You don't need to worry about that." There was more silence, and then my mama said, "Your job, the town…" "Alyssa," Uncle Connor said, his voice gentle, "I don't care about any of that. If there's no you, nothing else matters. Don't you know that by now? I'll resign from my job, sell the land. We'll live a life, baby. We'll find some happiness. Away from here–away from this place. Somewhere we can call our own. Baby, don't you want that? Tell me you do." There was more silence, only I heard soft sounds like maybe they were kissing. I had seen them kissing before when my mama didn't know I was spying, like I was doing now. I knew it was wrong–mamas weren't supposed to kiss men who weren't their husbands. But I also knew that daddies weren't supposed to come home drunk all the time and slap their wives in the face, and that mamas weren't supposed to look at uncles with the soft look my mama always got on her face when Uncle Connor came around. It was all mixed up and confused and I wasn't sure how to sort it all. That's why I spied on them, trying to understand. Finally, after what seemed like a long time, my mama whispered, so I could barely hear, "Yes, Connor, take us away from here. Take us far, far away. Me and you and Archer. Let's find some happiness. I want that. I want you. You're the only one I've ever wanted." "Lys… Lys… My Lys…" I heard Uncle Connor saying between heavy breaths. I snuck away, making my way back down the stairs, in between the noisy spots, not making a sound, moving in silence. CHAPTER 2 Bree I slung my backpack over my shoulder, picked up the small dog carrier on my passenger side seat, and closed the car door behind me. I stood still for a minute, just listening to the morning cricket songs echoing all around, almost, but not quite, drowning out the soft swish of the trees rustling in the wind. The sky above me was a vivid blue and I could just make out a small sliver of glistening lake water through the cottages in front of me. I squinted at the white one, the one that still had the small sign in the front window declaring that it was, For Rent. It was clearly older and slightly run down, but it had a charm about it that immediately appealed to me. I could picture sitting on the small porch in the evenings, watching the trees surrounding it sway in the breeze as the moon came up over the lake behind me, the smell of pine and lake water in the air. I smiled to myself. I hoped the inside offered a little charm too, or at the very least, some clean. "What do you think, Phoebs?" I asked softly. Phoebe chuffed agreeably from her carrier. "Yeah, I think so too," I said. An older sedan pulled up next to my small VW Bug and an older, balding man got out, walking toward me. "Bree Prescott?" "That's me." I smiled and took a few steps, shaking his hand. "Thanks for meeting me on short notice, Mr. Connick." "Please, call me George," he said, smiling back at me and moving toward the cottage, both of us kicking up dust and dead pine needles with each step. "Not a problem meetin' you. I'm retired now, so I don't really have a schedule to keep to. This worked just fine." We walked up the three wooden stairs to the small porch, and he pulled a ring of keys out of his pocket and began searching for one. "Here we go," he said, putting the key in the lock and pushing the front door open. The smell of dust and faint mildew greeted me as we stepped inside and I looked around. "The wife comes out here as often as possible and does some dusting and some basic cleaning, but as you can see, it could use a good once-over. Norma doesn't get around quite as well as she used to with her hip arthritis and all. The place has been empty all summer." "It's fine." I smiled at him, putting Phoebe's dog carrier down by the door and moving toward what I could see was the kitchen. The inside needed more than a basic cleaning–more like a complete scrub down. But I immediately loved it. It was quaint and full of charm. When I lifted a couple of covers, I saw that the furnishings were older, but tasteful. The wood floors were wide planked and beautifully rustic, and the paint colors were all subtle and calming. The kitchen appliances were older, but I didn't need much as far as a kitchen went anyway. I wasn't sure I'd ever want to cook again. "The bedroom and bathroom are in the back–" Mr. Connick started to say. "I'll take it," I cut in, then laughed and shook my head slightly. "I mean, if it's still available, and okay with you, I'll take it." He chuckled. "Well, yes, that's great. Let me get the rental agreement out of my car and we can get that all taken care of. I listed the security deposit as first and last, but I can work with you if that's a problem." I shook my head. "No, that's not a problem. That sounds fine." "Okay then, I'll be right back," he said, moving toward the door. While he was outside, I took a minute to walk down the hall and peek into the bedroom and bathroom. Both were small, but they would do, just as I'd figured they would. The thing that caught my attention was the large window in the bedroom that faced the lake. I couldn't help smiling as I took in the view of the small dock leading to the calm, glassy water, a stunning blue in the bright morning light. There were two boats far out, not much more than dots on the horizon. Suddenly, looking out at that water, I had the strangest sensation that I wanted to cry–but not with sadness, with happiness. Just as soon as I felt it, it started to fade, leaving me with an odd nostalgia that I couldn't begin to explain. "Here we go," Mr. Connick called and I heard the door shut behind him. I left the room to sign the papers for the place I would call home–at least for the next little while–hoping against hope that this was where I'd finally find some peace. ********** Norma Connick had left all her cleaning products at the cottage, and so after I had lugged my suitcase out of my car and put it in the bedroom, I had gotten to work. Three hours later, I pushed a damp piece of hair out of my eyes and stood back to admire my work. The wood floors were clean and dust free, all the furniture was uncovered and the entire place thoroughly dusted. I had found the bed linens and towels in the hall closet and washed and dried them in the small, stacked washer and dryer next to the kitchen, and then made up the bed. The kitchen and bathroom were scrubbed and bleached and I had opened all the windows to let in the warm summer breeze that came off the lake. I wouldn't get too used to this place, but for now, I was content. I unpacked the few toiletries I'd thrown into my suitcase and placed them in the medicine cabinet and then took a long, cool shower, washing the hours of cleaning and more hours of travel off my body. I had broken up the sixteen hour drive from my hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio, into two eight hour hauls, staying overnight in a small, roadside motel one night, and driving through the next to arrive this morning. I had stopped at a small Internet café in New York the day before and looked online for rental properties in the town where I was headed. The town in Maine I had chosen as my destination was a popular tourist attraction and so after more than an hour of searching, the closest I could get was across the lake, in this small town named Pelion. After drying off, I put on a pair of clean shorts and a t-shirt, and picked up my phone to call my best friend, Natalie. She'd called me several times since I'd first texted her and told her I was leaving, and I'd only texted her back. I owed her an actual phone call. "Bree?" Nat answered, the sounds of loud chatter in the background. "Hey, Nat, is this a bad time?" "Hold on, I'm going outside." She put her hand over the mouthpiece and said something to someone and then came back on the line. "No, it's not a bad time! I've been dying to talk to you! I'm at lunch with my mom and my aunt. They can wait a few minutes. I've been worried," she said, her tone slightly accusing. I sighed. "I know, I'm sorry. I'm in Maine." I had told her it was where I was heading. "Bree, you just took off. Geez. Did you even pack anything?" "A few things. Enough." She huffed out a breath. "Okay. Well, when are you coming home?" "I don't know. I thought I might stay here for a little while. Anyway, Nat, I didn't mention this, but I'm running low on money–I just spent a big chunk on a security deposit for my rental. I need to get a job, at least for a couple months, and make enough to fund my trip home and a few months of living expenses once I get back." Nat paused. "I didn't realize it was that bad. But Bree, honey, you have a college degree. Come home and put it to use. You don't need to live like some kind of vagabond in a town where you don't know a single person. I already miss you. Avery and Jordan miss you. Let your friends help you get back to life–we love you. I can send you some money if it means getting you home more quickly." "No, no, Natalie. Really. I… need this time, okay? I know you love me. I do," I said quietly. "I love you too. This is just something that I need to do." She paused again. "Was it because of Jordan?" I chewed on my lip for a couple seconds. "No, not entirely. I mean, maybe that was the straw, but no, I'm not running away from Jordan. It was just kind of the last thing I needed, you know? Everything just got to be… too much." "Oh honey, a person can only take so much." When I was quiet, she sighed and said, "So the semi-strange, impromptu road trip is already helping?" I heard the smile in her voice. I laughed a quiet laugh. "In some ways, maybe. In other ways, not just yet." "So they haven't gone away yet?" Natalie asked quietly. "No, Nat, not yet. But I feel good about this place. I really do." I tried to sound chipper. Nat paused again. "Honey, I don't think it's about the place." "That's not what I mean. I just mean, this feels like a good place to get away to for a little bit… oh gosh, you've gotta go. Your mom and aunt are waiting for you. We can talk about this another time." "Okay," she said, hesitantly. "So you're safe?" I paused. I never felt entirely safe. Would I again? "Yes, and it's beautiful here. I found a cottage right on the lake." I glanced out the window behind me, taking in the beautiful water view again. "Can I come visit?" I smiled. "Let me get settled in. Maybe before I turn back around?" "Okay, deal. I really miss you." "I miss you too. I'll call again soon, okay?" "Okay. Bye, honey." "Bye, Nat." I hung up the phone and went to the big window and drew the shades in my new bedroom and climbed into my freshly made bed. Phoebe settled in at my feet. I fell asleep the minute my head hit the pillow. ********** I woke up to the sounds of bird calls and the distant lap of water hitting the shore. I rolled over and looked at the clock. It was just past six in the evening now. I stretched and sat up, orienting myself. I got up, Phoebe trotting along behind me, and brushed my teeth in the small bathroom. After I rinsed, I studied myself in the medicine cabinet mirror. The dark circles under my eyes were still there, although less pronounced after the five hours of sleep I had just gotten. I pinched my cheeks to bring some color into them and gave myself a big, cheesy, fake grin in the mirror and then shook my head at myself. "You are going to be okay, Bree. You are strong and you are going to be happy again. Do you hear me? There's something good about this place. Do you feel it?" I tilted my head and stared at myself in the mirror for a minute longer. Lots of people gave their own reflection pep talks in the bathroom, right? Totally normal. I snorted softly and shook my head slightly again. I rinsed my face and then quickly pulled my long, light brown hair back into a messy twist at the nape of my neck. I went out to the kitchen and opened the freezer where I had put the frozen meals I had had in a cooler on ice in my car. I hadn't had a lot of food to bring with me–just the few things that were in my refrigerator at home–a few microwaveable meals, milk, peanut butter and bread, and some fruit. And a half a bag of dog food for Phoebs. But it would do for a couple days before I had to find the local grocery store. I popped a pasta meal into the microwave sitting on the counter and then stood eating it with a plastic fork. I watched out the kitchen window as I ate and noticed an old woman in a blue dress and short white hair come out of the cottage next to mine and walk toward my porch with a basket in her hands. When I heard her light knock, I tossed the now-empty cardboard meal box in the trash and went to answer. I pulled the door open and the old lady smiled warmly at me. "Hi dear, I'm Anne Cabbott. Looks like you're my new neighbor. Welcome to the neighborhood." I smiled back at her and took the basket she offered me. "Bree Prescott. Thank you. How nice." I lifted a corner of the towel on top of the basket and the sweet smell of blueberry muffins wafted up to me. "Oh gosh, these smell delicious," I said. "Would you like to come in?" "Actually, I was going to ask if you'd like to come have some iced tea with me on my porch. I just made some fresh." "Oh," I hesitated, "okay, sure. Just give me a second to pull on some shoes." I stepped back inside and put the muffins on my kitchen counter and then went back to my bedroom where I had kicked off my flip flops. When I came back to the front, Anne was standing at the edge of my porch waiting for me. "Such a lovely night. I try to sit out in the evenings and enjoy it. Pretty soon I'll be complaining about how cold it is." We started walking toward her cottage. "So you live here all year round?" I asked, glancing over at her. She nodded. "Most of us on this side of the lake are year-round residents. Tourists aren't interested in this town as it is. Over there," she nodded her head toward the far side of the lake, barely visible from this distance, "is where all the tourist attractions are. Most in this town don't mind that, like it even. Course all that's going to change. The woman who owns the town, Victoria Hale, has plans for a bunch of new development that will bring the tourists here as well." She sighed as we climbed the stairs to her porch and she sat down in one of the wicker chairs. I sat on the two-person porch swing and leaned back on the cushion. Her porch was beautiful and homey, full of comfortable white wicker, and bright blue and yellow cushions. There were pots of flowers everywhere–wave petunias and potato vine cascading over the sides. "What do you think about bringing tourists here?" She frowned slightly. "Oh, well, I like our quiet little town. I say let them stay over there. We still get the passer-throughs which is enough for my taste. Plus, I like our small town feel. Supposedly condos are going up here, so there won't be any more lakeside cottages." I frowned. "Oh, I'm sorry," I said, realizing she meant she'd have to move. She waved her hand dismissively. "I'll be okay. It's the businesses in town that will be closed down because of the expansion that I worry more for." I nodded, still frowning. We were quiet for a second before I said, "I vacationed on the other side of the lake with my family when I was a little girl." She picked up the pitcher of tea on the small table next to her and poured us each a glass and handed me one. "Did you? What brings you back here now?" I took a sip of my tea, purposefully stalling for a couple seconds. Finally I said, "I'm on a short road trip. I was happy there that summer." I shrugged. I tried to smile, but talking about my family still brought a tightness to my chest. I settled on what I hoped was a pleasant expression. She studied me for a second, taking a sip of her own tea. Then she nodded. "Well, dear, I think that sounds like a good plan. And I think if this place brought you happiness before, it can bring happiness again. Some places just agree with people, I think." She smiled warmly and I smiled back. I didn't tell her that the other reason I was here was that it was the last place my family had been truly happy and carefree. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when we got home from that trip. She died six months later. From then on, it had just been me and my dad. "How long are you planning on staying?" Anne asked, pulling me out of my reverie. "I’m not sure. I don't really have a specific itinerary. I will need to get a job though. Do you know anyone who's hiring?" She set her glass down. "Actually, I do. The diner in town needs a morning waitress. They're open for breakfast and lunch. I was in the other day and there was a sign up. The girl who worked there before had a baby and decided to stay at home with him. It's right on the main street in town–Norm's. You can't miss it. Always nice and busy. You tell them Anne sent you." She winked at me. "Thank you." I smiled. "I will." We sat quietly for a minute, both sipping our tea, the sound of crickets singing in the background, and the occasional mosquito buzzing past my ear. I could hear distant shouts from boaters on the lake, probably about to head in and call it a night, and the soft sound of the lake lapping on the shore. "It's peaceful here." "Well, I hope you don't find this forward, dear, but it seems like you could use a good dose of peaceful." I let out a breath and laughed softly. "You must read people well," I said. "You're not wrong there." She laughed softly too. "Always have been good at peggin' people. My Bill used to say that he couldn't hide anything from me if he tried. Course, love and time will do that too. You get so the other person is practically another part of you–and you can't hide from yourself. Although some are good at tryin', I suppose." I tilted my head. "I'm sorry. How long has your husband been gone?" "Oh, it's been ten years now. I still miss him though." Melancholy skated briefly across her features before she pulled her shoulders up and nodded her head at my glass. "He used to like a little bourbon in his sweet tea. Made him frisky. Course I didn't mind. Kept him smiling and only took a minute or two of my time." I had just taken a small sip of tea and I put my hand over my mouth not to spit it out. After I had swallowed it down, I laughed and Anne grinned at me. I nodded after a minute. "I guess men are pretty simple that way." Anne smiled. "Us women learn that young, don't we? Is there a boy waiting back home for you?" I shook my head. "No. I have a few good friends, but no one else is waiting back home for me." As the words spilled from my lips, the true nature of my alone-ness in the world felt like a sucker punch to my gut. It wasn't news to me and yet somehow, saying the words brought it home in a way that the knowledge itself didn't. I drained my glass of tea, attempting to swallow down the emotion that had suddenly overcome me. "I should get going," I said. "Thank you so much for the tea and the company." I smiled at Anne and she smiled back, beginning to stand as I did. "Anytime, Bree. You need anything at all, you know right where I am." "Thank you, Anne. That's very kind. Oh! I do need to make a trip to a drug store. Is there one in town?" "Yes. Haskell's. Just drive back through town, the way you came in and you'll see it on your left. It's right before the one stoplight. You can't miss it." "Okay, great. Thanks again," I said, stepping down the stairs and giving her a small wave. Anne nodded, smiling and waved back. As I walked back through my own yard to get my purse out of the house, I spotted a lone dandelion full of fluff. I bent and plucked it out of the ground and held it up to my lips, closing my eyes and recalling Anne's words. After a minute, I whispered, "Peace," before I blew and watched the fluff float out of sight, hoping that somehow one of those seeds carrying my whisper would reach that something or someone who had the power to make wishes come true. CHAPTER 3 Bree The sky was just beginning to dim when I drove into Pelion, a quiet, almost old-fashioned, little downtown area. Most of the businesses looked to be family, or individual-owned, and large trees lined the wide sidewalks where people still strolled in the cooler, late-summer twilight. I loved this time of day. There was something magical about it, something hopeful, something that said, "You didn't know if you could, but you made it another day, didn't you?" I spotted Haskell's and pulled into the parking lot to the right of it and pulled into a spot. I didn't need groceries just yet, but I was in need of a few basic necessities. It was the only reason I'd run out at all. Even though I had slept five hours or so today, I was tired again and ready to settle into bed with a book. I was in and out of Haskell's in ten minutes, and walking back to my car in the deepening twilight. The streetlights had blinked on in the time I had been in the store, and were casting a dreamy glow over the parking lot. I pulled my purse up on my shoulder and switched the plastic bag from one hand to the other when the bottom of the plastic tore open and my purchases fell to the concrete, several items rolling away, out of my immediate reach. "Crap!" I swore, bending down to pick my stuff up. I opened my large purse and started tossing in the shampoo and conditioner I'd picked up, when I saw someone stopped in my peripheral vision and I startled. I looked up just as a man bent down and put one knee on the asphalt and handed me the bottle of Advil that had rolled away, apparently directly into his path. I stared at him. He was young, and had shaggy, long, slightly wavy, brown hair that was in desperate need of a cut, and facial hair that looked more neglected than purposefully rugged. He might be handsome, but it was hard to make out exactly what his face looked like under the overly-long beard and hair that fell over his forehead and down around his jaw. He was wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt that was stretched across his broad chest. The t-shirt had had a message on it at some point, but now was so faded and worn away that it was anyone's guess what it had once said. I took all of this in in the few brief seconds it took me to reach for his extended hand holding the bottle of pain medication, at which point, our eyes met and seemed to tangle. His were deep and whiskey-colored, framed by long, dark lashes. Beautiful. As I stared at him, it felt like something moved between us, almost as if I should reach out and try to grab the air surrounding our bodies–like perhaps my hand would come back holding something tangible, something soft and warm. I frowned, confused, but unable to look away as his eyes quickly darted from mine. Who was this strange-looking man and why was I sitting here frozen in front of him? I shook my head slightly and snapped myself back to reality. "Thanks," I said, taking the bottle from his still-outstretched hand. He said nothing, not looking at me again. "Crap," I quietly swore once more, returning my attention to the items strewn on the ground. My eyes widened when I saw that my box of tampons had opened and several of them were lying on the ground. Kill me now. He picked up a few and handed them to me and I quickly stuffed them in my purse, glancing up at him at the same time he glanced at me, but there was no reaction on his face. Again, his eyes darted away. I felt color rising in my cheeks and tried to make small talk as he handed me a few more tampons and I snatched them and threw them in my purse, suppressing an hysterical giggle. "Darn plastic bags," I breathed out, fast talking, then taking a deep breath before continuing, a little slower this time. "Not only bad for the environment, but unreliable really." The man handed me an Almond Joy candy bar and a tampon and I took it from him and dropped it into my open purse, groaning inwardly. "I tried to be good about using my own re-usable shopping bags. I even bought really cute ones in fun patterns… paisley, polka dot," I shook my head, stuffing the last tampon on the ground in my purse, "but I was always leaving them in my car, or at home," I shook my head again as the man handed me two more Almond Joy candy bars. "Thanks," I said. "I think I've got the rest of this." I waved my hand over the four remaining Almond Joy candy bars lying on the ground. I looked up at him, my cheeks heating again. "They were on sale," I explained. "I wasn't planning on eating these all at once or anything." He didn't look at me as he picked them up himself, but I swore I saw a miniscule lip twitch. I blinked and it was gone. I squinted at him, taking the candy bars from his hand. "I just like to keep chocolate around the house, you know, for a treat once in a while. This here should last me a couple months." I was lying. What I had bought would last me a couple days, if that. I might even eat several of them on the car ride home. The man stood and so did I, lifting my purse over my shoulder. "Okay, well, thanks for the help, for rescuing me… and my… personal items… my chocolate, and coconut… and almonds…" I laughed a small, embarrassed sound, but then grimaced slightly. "You know, it would really help me out if you would speak and put me out of my misery here." I grinned at him, but immediately went serious as his face fell, his eyes shuttering and a blank look replacing the warmer one I had sworn was there moments before. He turned and started walking away. "Hey, wait!" I called, starting to step after him. I stopped myself though, frowning as he moved away from me, his body moving with grace as he started to jog slowly toward the street. The strangest feeling of loss washed over me as he crossed and walked out of sight. I got in my car and sat there unmoving for a couple minutes, wondering at the odd encounter. When I finally started the engine, I noticed that there was something on my windshield. I went to turn on the spray, when I stopped and leaned forward, looking more closely. Dandelion seeds were scattered across the glass, and as a light breeze blew, the fluffy ends were caught in the moving air and danced delicately off my windshield as they took flight, moving away from me, in the direction the man had gone. ********** I woke up early the next morning, got out of bed, and pulled up the shades in my bedroom and stared out at the lake, the morning sun reflecting on it, making it a warm, golden color. A large bird took up flight and I could just make out one singular boat in the water, close to the distant shore. Yeah, I could get used to this. Phoebe jumped off the bed and came to sit by my feet. "What do you think, girl?" I whispered. She yawned. I took a deep breath, trying to center myself. "Not this morning," I whispered. "This morning you're okay." I walked slowly toward the shower, relaxing minimally, hope blooming in my chest with each step. But as I turned on the spray, the world around me blinked out and the shower became the sound of rain, beating on the roof. Dread seized me and I froze as a loud clap of thunder pounded in my ears and the feel of cold metal moved across my bare breast. I flinched at the jerkiness of the gun tracing my nipple, the cold making it pebble as the tears flowed faster down my cheeks. Inside my head sounded like the high-pitched shriek of a train screeching to a stop on metal rails. Oh God, Oh God. I held my breath, just waiting for the gun to go off, ice-cold terror flowing through my veins. I tried to think of my dad lying in his own blood in the room beyond, but my own fear was so all-consuming that I couldn't focus on anything else. I began to shake uncontrollably, the rain continuing to beat against the– A car door slammed outside, snapping me back to the here and now. I was standing in front of the running shower, water puddling on the floor where the curtain was open. Vomit rushed up my throat and I turned just in time to make it to the bowl where I heaved up bile. I sat there gasping and shaking for several minutes, trying to get a hold of my body. The tears threatened to come, but I wouldn't let them. I squeezed my eyes shut and counted backwards from one hundred. When I made it to one, I took another deep breath and stumbled to my feet, grabbing a towel to mop up the growing puddle in front of the open shower. I stripped off my clothes and stepped under the warm spray, leaning my head back and closing my eyes, trying to relax and come back to the present, trying to get the shaking under control. "You're okay, you're okay, you're okay," I chanted, swallowing down the emotion, the guilt, my body still trembling slightly. I would be okay. I knew that, but it always took a little while to shake the feeling of being back there, in that place, in that moment of utter grief and terror, and then sometimes several hours before the sadness left me, but never completely. Every morning the flashback came, and every evening I felt stronger again. Each dawn I had hope that this new day would be the one that would set me free, and that I would make it through without having to endure the pain of being chained in grief to the night that would forever separate now from then. I stepped out of the shower and dried off. Looking at myself in the mirror, I thought I looked better than I did most mornings. Despite the fact that the flashbacks hadn't ended here, I had slept well, which I hadn't done much of over the past six months, and felt a sense of contentment that I attributed to the lake outside my window. What was more peaceful than the sound of water lapping gently on a sandy shore? Surely some of that would seep into my soul, or at the very least, help me get some much-needed sleep. I went back to my bedroom and pulled on a pair of khaki shorts and a black button-up shirt with cap sleeves. I was planning on going into the diner in town that Anne had mentioned and wanted to look presentable since I'd be asking about the–hopefully still available–job. I was running low on money. I needed one as quickly as possible. I blew my hair dry and left it down and then put on a minimum of makeup. I pulled on my black sandals and was out the door, the warm, morning air caressing my skin as I stepped outside and locked up. Ten minutes later, I was pulling up to the curb outside of Norm's. It looked like a classic, small town diner. I looked in the big, glass window and saw that it was already half full on a Monday morning at eight a.m. The Help Wanted sign was still in the window. Yes! I opened the door and the smell of coffee and bacon greeted me, the sounds of chatter and soft laughter coming from the booths and tables. I walked toward the front and took a seat at the counter, next to two young women in cutoff jean shorts and tank tops–obviously not part of those stopping in for breakfast on their way to the office. As I took a seat on the rotating, red, vinyl covered stool, the woman now sitting next to me looked at me and smiled. "Good morning," I said and smiled back. "Good morning!" she said. I picked up the menu in front of me and a waitress, an older woman with short gray hair, standing at the kitchen window, looked over her shoulder at me and said, "I'll be right with you, honey." She looked harried as she flipped through her order pad. The place was only half full, but she was obviously alone and having trouble keeping up. Morning crowds were always looking for rush service so they could make it to work on time. "No rush," I said. A few minutes later when she had delivered a couple meals and came up to me, she said distractedly, "Coffee?" "Please. And you look slammed–I'll make it easy on you and have the number three–just as it comes." "Bless you, honey." She laughed. "You must have experience waitressing." "Actually," I smiled and handed her the menu, "I do, and I know this isn't a good time, but I saw the Help Wanted sign in the window." "Seriously?" she said, "When can you start?" I laughed. "As soon as possible. I can come back later to fill out an application or–" "No need. You have waitressing experience, you need a job, you're hired. Come back later to fill out the necessary paperwork, but Norm's my husband. I have the authority to hire another waitress and I just hired you." She held out her hand. "Maggie Jansen, by the way." I grinned at her. "Bree Prescott. Thank you so much!" "You're the one who just made my morning better," she called as she went down the counter to refill the other coffee cups. Well, that was the easiest interview I'd ever had. "New in town?" the young woman next to me asked. I turned to her, smiling. "Yes, just moved here yesterday, actually." "Well, welcome to Pelion. I'm Melanie Scholl and this is my sister, Liza." The girl on the right of her leaned forward and extended her hand. I shook it, saying, "Really nice to meet you." I noticed the bathing suit ties sticking out of the back of their tank tops and said, "Are you vacationing here?" "Oh no," Melanie laughed, "we work on the other shore. We're lifeguards for the next couple weeks while the tourists are here and then we go back to work at our family's pizza parlor during the winter." I nodded, sipping my coffee. I thought they looked about my age, Liza most likely the younger one. They looked similar with their reddish brown hair and the same large, blue eyes. "If you have any questions about this town, you just ask us," Liza said. "We make it our business to know all the dirt." She winked. "We can tell you who to date, too, and who to avoid. We've pretty much run through them all in both towns–we're a wealth of information." I laughed. "Okay, I'll keep that in mind. I'm really glad I met you girls." I started to turn forward when something occurred to me. "Hey, actually, I have a question about someone. I dropped some stuff in the pharmacy parking lot last night and a young man stopped to help me. Tall, lean, good build, but… I don't know, he didn't say a word… and he had this long beard–" "Archer Hale," Melanie broke in. "I'm shocked he stopped to help you though. He doesn't usually pay anyone any attention." She paused. "And no one usually pays him any attention either, I guess." "Well, I don't know if he had too much of a choice," I said. "My stuff literally rolled right in front of his feet." Melanie shrugged. "Still unusual. Trust me. Anyway, I think he's deaf. That's why he doesn't speak. He was in some kind of accident when he was a kid. We were just five and six when it happened, right outside town, on the highway. His parents were killed, and the town Police Chief, his uncle. That's when he lost his hearing, I guess. He lives at the end of Briar Road–he used to live with his other uncle who home-schooled him, but that uncle died a couple years back and now he lives by himself out there. He never even used to come into town until his uncle died. Now we see him every once in a while. He's a total loner though." "Wow," I said, frowning, "that's so sad." "Yeah," Liza chimed in, "because, have you seen the body on him? Of course, runs in the genes. If he wasn't so anti-social, I'd do him." Melanie rolled her eyes and I put my hand up to my lips so coffee wouldn't spew out of my mouth. "Please, you hooker," Melanie said, "you'd do him anyway, if he'd look your way once." Liza considered that for a second and then shook her head. "I doubt he'd even know what to do with that body of his. A true shame." Melanie rolled her eyes again and then glanced up at the clock above the order window. "Oh darn, we gotta go or we're gonna be late." She took out her wallet and called to Maggie, "I'm leaving the bill on the counter, Mags." "Thanks, hon," Maggie called back as she walked quickly by, holding two plates. Melanie scribbled something down on a napkin and handed it to me. "Here's our number," she said. "We're planning a girl's night on the other side of the lake soon. Maybe you'd like to come with us?" I took the napkin. "Oh, okay, well, maybe." I smiled. I scribbled my number down on a napkin and handed her mine as well. "Thanks so much. That's really nice of you." I was surprised by how much my mood was boosted after talking to the two girls my age. Maybe that's what I need, I thought, to remember that I was a person with friends and a life before tragedy struck. It was so easy to feel like my whole existence began and ended that terrible day. But that wasn't true. I needed to remind myself of that as much as possible. Of course, my friends back home had tried to get me to go out a few times in the months following my dad's death, but I just hadn't been up for it. Maybe going out with people who weren't so acquainted with my tragedy would be better–after all, wasn't that what this road trip was about? A temporary escape? The hope that a new place would bring new healing? And then I would have the strength to face my life again. Liza and Melanie walked quickly out the door, calling and waving to a few other people sitting in the restaurant. After a minute, Maggie set my plate down in front of me. As I ate, I considered what they had said about the guy named Archer Hale. It made sense now–he was deaf. I wondered why that hadn't already occurred to me. That's why he hadn't spoken. Obviously, he could read lips. And I had completely insulted him when I made the comment about him saying something. That's why his face had fallen and he had walked away like that. I cringed inwardly. "Nice one, Bree," I said quietly as I bit off a piece of toast. I'd make it a point to apologize next time I saw him. I wondered if he knew sign language. I'd let him know I could speak it if he wanted to talk to me. I knew it well. My dad had been deaf. Something about Archer Hale intrigued me–something I couldn't put my finger on. Something that went beyond the fact that he couldn't hear or speak and that I was intimately acquainted with that particular disability. I pondered it for a minute, but couldn't come up with an answer. I finished my meal and Maggie waved me off when I asked for my check. "Employee's eat for free," she called, refilling coffee down the counter from me. "Come back in anytime after two to fill out the paperwork." I grinned at her. "Okay," I said. "See you this afternoon." I left a tip on the counter and headed out the door. Not bad, I thought. Only in town one day and I've got a home, a job, and a sort of friend in my neighbor, Anne, and maybe in Melanie and Liza too. There was an extra spring in my step as I walked to my car. CHAPTER 4 Bree I started work at Norm's Diner early the next morning. Norm himself worked the kitchen and was mostly grumpy and grumbly, and he didn't talk to me much, but I saw him shoot Maggie looks that could only be described as adoring. I suspected that he was really just a big softie–he didn't scare me. I also knew I was a good waitress and that Maggie's stress-level had dropped significantly an hour after I started, and so I figured I had an in with Norm right off the bat. The diner was bustling, the work straightforward, and the locals who ate there pleasant. I couldn't complain, and the first couple of days went by quickly and smoothly. On Wednesday after I got off work, I drove home, showered, changed and pulled on my swimsuit and a pair of jean shorts and a white tank top, intending on going down to the lake and doing a little exploring. I put Phoebe's leash on her and locked up behind me. As I was leaving my house, Anne called to me from her yard where she was watering the rosebushes. I walked over to her smiling. "How are you settling in?" she asked me, setting her watering can down and walking over to her fence where I was standing. "Good! I've been meaning to come over and thank you for letting me know about the position at the diner. I got it and I'm waitressing there." "Oh that's great! Maggie's a gem. Don't let Norm scare you off–he's all bark and no bite." I laughed. "I figured that out pretty quickly." I winked. "No, it's been good. I was just going to drive down the road and check out the lake a little bit." "Oh, good. The docks don't make for a very good walk right here–of course, you probably figured that out. If you go down to Briar Road, you can follow the signs to the small beach." She gave me brief directions and then added, "If you want it, I have a bike that I don't use anymore. With my arthritis, I just can't grip the handlebars so that I feel safe. But it's practically new and it even has a basket for your dog." She looked down at the little dog in question. "Hi there. What's your name?" She smiled down at Phoebe and Phoebe chuffed happily, dancing around a bit. "Say hi, Phoebe." I smiled. "What a cute girl you are," Anne said, bending down slightly to let Phoebe lick her hand. She stood up and said, "The bike is in my spare bedroom. Would you like to see it?" I paused. "Are you sure? I mean, I would love to ride a bike down to the lake rather than take my car." "Yes, yes," she waved me toward her as she started to walk to her house. "I would love to see it put to use. I used to pick blueberries up that way. They grow wild. Bring a couple bags and you can put them in the bike basket when you're done. Do you bake?" "Um," I said, following her in to her cottage, "I used to. I haven't in a while." She glanced back at me. "Well, maybe the blueberries will inspire you to pick up an apron again." She smiled as she opened a door right off the main room. Her cottage was casually decorated with well-used, slipcovered furniture and lots of knick knacks and framed photos. The smell of dried eucalyptus hung in the air. It immediately felt comforting and happy. "Here we go," Anne said, wheeling a bike out of the room she had entered seconds before. I couldn't help grinning. It was one of those old-fashioned bikes with a big basket on the front. "Oh my goodness! It's fabulous. Are you sure you want me using this?" "Nothing would make me happier, dear. In fact, if it works for you, you keep it." I smiled at her, wheeling it out onto her porch. "Thank you so much. This is so kind of you. I really… thank you." She came out behind me and helped me lift it down the stairs. "My pleasure. It makes me happy to know it's being used and enjoyed." I smiled again, admiring it, when something occurred to me. "Oh! Can I ask you a question? I ran into someone in town, and someone else I met mentioned that he lives at the end of Briar Road. Archer Hale? Do you know him?" Anne frowned, looking thoughtful at the same time. "Yes, I know of him anyway. You'll actually be passing right by his land on your way to the small beach. You can't miss it–it's really the only property on that stretch of road." She looked thoughtful for a second. "Yes, Archer Hale… I remember him as a sweet little boy. Doesn't talk now though. Suppose it's because he doesn't hear." I tilted my head. "Do you know what happened to him exactly?" She paused. "There was a big car crash outside of town right about the time my Bill got his diagnosis. Suppose I didn't pay quite as much attention to the details as the rest of the town did–just grieved along with them. But what I do know, is that Archer's parents and his uncle, Connor Hale, the owner of the town and the Chief of Police, died that day, and that whatever afflicts Archer happened in that accident. Hmm, now let me think…" She paused. "He went to live with his other uncle, Nathan Hale. But he died three or four years ago–some kind of cancer from what I recall." She looked past me, staring into space for a couple seconds. "Some in town say he isn't right in the head, Archer, I mean. But I don't know about that. Might just be them passing off his uncle's personality onto him. My younger sister went to school with Nathan Hale and he never was quite right. Wicked smart, but always slightly strange. And when he came home from the army, he was even more… different." I frowned up at her. "And they still sent a little boy to live with him?" "Oh well, I suppose he presented okay to the county. And anyway, far as I know, he was the only family that boy had left." She went quiet again for a minute. "Haven't talked about the original Hale boys in years now. But they sure did always cause a stir. Hmm." She was quiet again for a few beats. "Now that I think about it, it really is a sad situation with the younger Hale boy. Sometimes in small towns, people who have been around forever sort of… become part of the backdrop, I guess. In the town's attempt to move past the tragedy, Archer might have just gotten lost in the mix. Such a shame." Anne lapsed into silence again, seeming to be lost in the past and I thought I'd better be off. "Hmm, well," I smiled, "thanks again for the directions. I'll stop by later." Anne brightened and seemed to snap back to the present. "Yes, that would be nice. Have a lovely day!" She smiled and turned back around and grabbed the watering can she had sat down on her porch as I wheeled the bike through her front gate. I put Phoebe in the basket and as I got on the bike and pedaled slowly toward the entrance of Briar Road, I thought about what Anne had told me about the Hale brothers, and about Archer Hale. It didn't seem like anyone knew the exact story of what had happened to Archer–or they had forgotten the details? I knew what it was like to lose both your parents, not in one fell swoop though. How would you even begin to deal with something like that? Did your mind allow you to process one loss at a time–wouldn't you go crazy with grief if that much of it inundated your heart at once? Some days I felt like I was barely holding on to my emotions from moment to moment. I supposed that we all coped in our different ways–pain and healing as individual as the people who experienced them. The sight of what must be his property snapped me out of my own thoughts. There was a high fence surrounding it, the tops of trees too numerous and too thick to see anything beyond the high structure. I craned my neck to see how far the fence went, but it was hard to tell from the road, and there were woods on either side. My eyes returned to the front of the fence where I could see a latch, but it was closed. I wasn't sure why I stood there, just looking at it and listening to the mosquitos buzz. But after a few minutes, Phoebe barked softly, and I continued to head down the road to the beach access where Anne had directed me. I spent a few hours down at the lakeshore, swimming and sunning myself. Phoebe lay on a corner of my towel in the shade, sleeping contentedly. It was a hot August day, but the breeze off of the lake and the shade of the trees behind the shore made it comfortable. There were a few people further down the small beach area, but it was mostly deserted. I figured that that was because this side of the lake was only used by locals. I lay back on the towel I had brought and looked up at the tips of the swaying trees and the patches of bright blue sky, listening to the lapping water. After a few minutes, I closed my eyes, just intending to rest, but instead fell asleep. I dreamed of my dad. Only this time, he hadn't died right away. He crawled into the kitchen just in time to see the man dart out the back door. "You're alive!" I said, beginning to sit up off the floor where the man had left me. He nodded, a gentle smile on his face. "You're okay?" I asked haltingly, fearful. "Yes," he said and I startled for my dad had never used his voice, only his hands. "You can speak," I whispered. "Yes," he said again, laughing slightly. "Of course." But it was then that I noticed that his lips weren't moving. "I want you back, dad," I said, my eyes tearing up. "I miss you so much." His face went serious and it looked like the distance between us was increasing even though neither of us had moved. "I'm so sorry you can't have us both, Little Bee," he said, using my nickname. "Both?" I whispered, confused, watching the distance between us grow even more. Suddenly, he was gone and I was alone. I was crying, and my eyes were closed, but I could feel a presence standing over me. I startled awake, warm tears coursing down my cheeks, the very edges of the dream fading into mist. As I lay there trying to gather my emotions, I swore I heard the sound of someone moving away, through the woods behind me. ********** I got into the diner early the next morning. Despite sleeping well, I had had a particularly bad flashback that morning, and I was having trouble shaking the melancholy that still clung to me. I dove into the morning rush, keeping my head down and my mind occupied with the business of taking orders, delivering food, and refilling coffee. By nine when the diner started to empty out, I was feeling better, lighter. I was re-stocking the condiments at the counter when the door to the diner opened and a young man in a police uniform walked in. He removed his hat and ran his hand through his short, wavy brown hair before he nodded over at Maggie, who smiled back at him and called out, "Trav." His gaze moved to me as he walked toward the counter and our eyes locked for a portion of a second. His face lit up with a smile, his straight, white teeth flashing as he took a seat in front of me. "Well, you must be the reason that Maggie's got a smile on her face this morning," he said, extending his hand. "I'm Travis Hale." Oh, another Hale. I smiled back, taking his hand. "Hi Travis. Bree Prescott." He sat down, bringing his long legs under the counter. "Good to meet you, Bree. What brings you to Pelion?" I chose my words carefully, not wanting to come off as some kind of weird nomad. Although, I supposed that was sort of what I was at the moment if I had decided to be completely truthful. "Well, Travis, I recently graduated college and decided to take sort of a freedom road-trip." I smiled. "Ended up here in your pretty little town." He grinned. "Exploring while you can." He said. "I like it. Wish I had done more of that myself." I smiled back, handing him a menu just as Maggie came up behind me. She grabbed the menu and tossed it under the counter. "Travis Hale must have that thing memorized by now," she said, winking at me. "Been coming in here since his mother had to sit him in a booster seat to reach the table. Speaking of your mother, how is she?" He smiled. "Oh, she's fine. You know, she keeps busy, never lacking for a social circle. Plus, she's extra busy with all the town expansion plans." Maggie's lips pursed, but she said, "Well, you tell her I said hi," and smiled kindly. "Will do," Travis said, turning back to me. "So your last name is Hale," I said. "You must be related to Archer Hale." Travis's brows furrowed slightly and he looked confused for a small beat. "Archer? Yeah, he's my cousin. You know him?" "Oh, no," I said, shaking my head. "I ran into him in town a few days ago and I asked about him… he was a little…" "Weird?" Travis finished. "Different," I corrected, considering. I waved my hand. "I've only met a few people and he was one of them so… I mean, not that I actually met him per se, but…" I grabbed the coffee pot off the machine and held it up to him questioningly. He nodded and I started to pour him a cup. "Hard to meet someone who doesn't speak," Travis said. He looked thoughtful for a second. "I've tried with him over the years, but he just doesn't respond to niceties. He's in a world of his own. Sorry he was part of your welcome wagon. Anyway, good to have you here." He smiled, taking a sip of his coffee. "Thanks," I said. "So you're a Pelion police officer?" I asked, stating the obvious, but just making conversation. "Yup," he said. "On track to become the Chief of Police," Maggie interrupted, "just like his daddy before him." She winked, walking by on her way back to the table next to the counter that we used for breaks. Travis raised his eyebrows and smiled. "We'll see," he said, but he didn't look doubtful. I just smiled at him, and he smiled up at me. I didn't mention that Anne had told me about his father, whom I assumed was Connor Hale. I thought it might sound weird if he knew that I had already asked about his family. Or at least, about the gist of the tragedy that had happened to them. "Where are you staying?" he asked. "Oh, right on the lake," I answered. "Rockwell Lane." "In one of George Connick's rentals?" I nodded. "Well, Bree, I'd love to show you around sometime if you're available." His whiskey-colored eyes moved over me. I smiled, studying him. He was handsome, there was no doubt about that. I was pretty sure he was asking me out, not just being friendly. Dating just wasn't the most brilliant idea for me at the moment though. "I'm sorry, Travis, things are kind of… complicated with me right now." He studied me for a couple beats, and I flushed under his stare. "I’m a pretty simple kind of guy, Bree." He winked. I laughed, thankful that he broke the tension. We chatted easily enough while he finished his coffee and as I continued to fill the condiments at the counter and tidy up. Norm came out of the kitchen just as Travis was getting up to leave. "You flirting with my new waitress?" Norm grumped. "I have to," Travis answered. "For some unknown reason, Maggie still won't leave your sour ass for me." Travis winked at Maggie who was wiping down a table next to the counter. "She'll come around one of these days though. I hold out hope." Norm snorted, wiping his hands down the grease-stained apron covering his pot belly. "She comes home to this at night," he said. "What would she want with you?" Travis chuckled, turning to leave, but calling to Maggie, "You come find me when you get tired of this ill-tempered lug." Maggie laughed, patting her short, salt and pepper curls, and Norm grumbled his way back into the kitchen. At the door, Travis turned back around to me, saying, "My offer stands, Bree." I smiled as he closed the door behind him. "You watch out," Maggie said to me, "That boy will charm the pants right off of you." But she smiled as she said it. I laughed, shaking my head and watching out the window as Travis Hale got in his police cruiser and pulled away from the curb. ********** That evening, I took my bike down Briar Road again and picked blueberries along the side of the road. When my bag was half full and my fingertips were stained dark purple, I started for home. On my way back, I sat on my bike on the side of the dusty road in front of Archer's property and looked at the fence in front of me for no particular reason–at least not one that I could explain to myself. After a few minutes, I started peddling home. That night I dreamed that I was lying on the shore of the lake. I could feel sand beneath my bare skin, the granules biting into my flesh as I rocked against it, a man's welcome weight above me. There was no fear, no distress–I wanted him there. The water came up over my legs like smooth, cool silk caressing my skin and soothing the sting of the abrasive sand. I woke up gasping, my nipples pebbled painfully against my t-shirt and my pulse beating rhythmically between my legs. I tossed and turned until I finally fell asleep, somewhere close to dawn. CHAPTER 5 Bree I was off from the diner the next day. When I woke up and looked at the clock, it was eight seventeen. I startled slightly. I hadn't slept that late in months and months, but I supposed it was to be expected being that I'd hardly slept the night before. I sat up slowly, the room coming into focus. I felt heavy and groggy as I swung my legs over the side of the bed. My sleep-filled head had barely started to clear when a sound came from outside, just a branch dropping, or a boat engine backfiring in the distance, but my brain grabbed it and catapulted me straight into my waking nightmare–I froze, terror seizing up my muscles, my brain screaming. I watched through the small window in the door separating me and my dad. He saw me in his peripheral vision, and started signing Hide, over and over, as the man screamed at him to put his hands down. My dad couldn't hear him, and his hands continued to move only for me. My body jolted as the gun exploded. I cried out and my hand flew up to my mouth to stifle the sound as I stumbled backwards, instantly filled with shock and horror. I tripped on the edge of a box and fell down backwards, drawing my legs up under me, trying to make myself as small as possible. I didn't have a phone back here. My eyes flew around the room looking for something I could hide behind, somewhere I could crawl. And that's when the doors swung open… Reality rushed back in as the world around me cleared and I felt the bedspread gripped in my fists. I let out a gasping breath and stood shakily, rushing to the toilet just in time. God, I couldn't do this forever. This had to stop. Do not cry, do not cry. Phoebe sat on the floor at my feet, moaning softly. After several minutes, I got a hold of myself. "It's okay, girl," I said, petting Phoebe's head reassuringly, for her, but also for me. I stumbled to the shower and twenty minutes later as I pulled on my swimsuit, shorts and a blue tank, I felt a little better. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and grounded myself. I was okay. After finishing a quick breakfast, I pulled on my sandals, grabbed my book and my towel, called to Phoebe, and stepped outside into the warm, slightly muggy air, the mosquitos already buzzing around me, and a frog croaking somewhere close by. I took a deep inhale of the fresh air, the smell of pine and fresh lake water filling my lungs. As I climbed on my bike, Phoebe in the basket in front, I was able to exhale. I rode down to Briar Road again and sat on the small beach area I had sat on a couple days before. I immersed myself in my novel and before I knew it, I was finished and two hours had flown by. I stood up and stretched, looking out at the still lake, squinting to see the other side where boats and jet skis moved through the water. As I folded up my towel, I thought that it was a stroke of luck that I had ended up on this side of the lake. The peace and quiet was just what I needed. I put Phoebe back in the basket and I pushed my bike back up the slight incline to the road, and pedaled slowly back toward Archer Hale's fence. I pulled to the side as a mail truck drove past me, the driver waving. The tires kicked up dust so that I coughed, waving the gritty air in front of me aside as I pulled back onto the road. I rode another hundred feet and then pulled over and stood looking at the fence again. Today, because of the way the sun slanted in the sky, I could see several rectangles on the wood that were just a little bit lighter, as if signs had hung there once, but had been removed. Just as I began to start moving again, I noticed that the gate was very slightly ajar. I stopped and stared at it for a few seconds. The mailman must have been delivering something here and left it open. I pulled my bike forward and leaned it against the fence as I pulled the gate open a bit further and peeked my head inside. I sucked in a breath as I took in the beautiful stone driveway leading to the small, white house about one hundred feet from where I was now standing. I didn't know what I had been expecting exactly, but this wasn't it. Everything was neat and tidy and well cared for, a very small span of emerald green, recently mowed grass between some trees, to one side of the driveway, and a small garden in wood pallets directly to the left. I leaned back out, starting to close the gate when Phoebe jumped out of the bike's basket and squeezed herself through the narrow opening. "Shit!" I sputtered. "Phoebe!" I pulled the gate back open just a bit and peered inside again. Phoebe was standing just down the driveway, looking back at me, panting. "Bad dog!" I whispered. "Get back here!" Phoebe looked at me, turned tail and trotted further away. I groaned. Well, shit! I walked through the gate, leaving it open slightly behind me, and continued to call to Phoebe who apparently thought I could kiss her little doggie ass as much as she was listening to me. As I moved closer, I could see a large stone patio and walkway in front of the house, built up on either side, and adorned with large planters full of greenery. As my eyes moved around the yard, it suddenly registered that there was a loud, banging noise ringing out every few seconds. Was someone cutting wood? Is that what that sound was? Phoebe trotted around the house and out of sight. I tilted my head, listening and adjusting my weight between one foot and then the other. What should I do? I couldn't leave Phoebe here. I couldn't go back to the gate and yell loudly for Archer to answer–he couldn't hear. I had to go in after her. Archer was in there. I was not a girl who was willing to put herself in dangerous situations. Not that I had before–and yet, danger had found me anyway. But, still. Walking into unknown territory wasn't something I was thrilled to be doing. Damn little, misbehaving dog. But as I stood there considering, working up my nerve to go in after Phoebe, I thought about Archer. My instincts told me he was safe. That had to count for something. Was I going to let that evil man make me doubt my own instincts for the rest of my life? I thought about how my hair had stood up on my arms the minute I heard the bell ring on our front door that night. Something inside me had known, and standing here now, something inside me felt like I wasn't in danger. My feet moved forward. I walked down the driveway slowly, inhaling the pungent smell of sap and freshly mowed grass, continuing to call softly to Phoebe. I took the stone path around the house, trailing my hands along the painted wood. I peeked around the back of the house and there he was, his bare back to me as he raised an axe over his head, his back muscles flexing as he swung downward, cracking an upright log straight down the middle so that three pieces all fell outward and landed on the dirt. He bent down and picked them up and placed them in a stack of neatly piled pieces sitting under a tree, a large tarp off to one side. As he turned back around to the stump where he was chopping the smaller pieces, he caught sight of me and startled and then froze. We both stood there staring at one another, my mouth slightly open and his eyes wide. A bird trilled somewhere nearby and an answering call echoed through the trees. I closed my mouth and smiled, but Archer remained staring for several beats before his eyes did one quick sweep of me and returned to my face, narrowing now. My eyes moved over him as well, his well-defined naked chest, all smooth-skinned muscles and rippling abs. I had never actually seen an eight-pack, but there it was, right in front of me. I guessed that even slightly strange, silent hermits weren't exempt from exceptional physiques. Good for him. He was wearing what looked like a pair of khakis, cut off at the knees and tied at his waist with a… was that a rope? Interesting. My eyes moved downwards to the work boots on his feet and back up to his face. He had tilted his head to one side as we studied each other, but his expression remained the same–wary. His beard was just as scraggly as the first time I had seen him. Apparently, his knack for lawn trimming didn't extend to his own facial hair. That could use some major edging. As long as it was, he must have been growing it for some time now–years probably. I cleared my throat. "Hi." I smiled, moving closer so that he could clearly read my lips. "Sorry, to uh, bother you. My dog ran in here. I called her, but she didn't listen." I looked around, no Phoebe in sight. Archer brushed his overly long hair out of his eyes and his brows furrowed at my words. He turned his body and lifted the axe and buried it in the tree stump and then turned back around to me. I swallowed heavily. Suddenly, a little white fur ball shot out of the woods and trotted toward Archer, sitting down at his feet and panting. Archer looked down at her and then bent and petted her head. Phoebe licked his hand exuberantly, whining for more when he withdrew and stood up. Little traitor. "That's her," I said, stating the obvious. He continued to stare. "Uh, so, your place," I went on, waving my hand around, indicating his property, "is really nice." He continued to stare at me. Finally, I tilted my head. "Do you remember me? From town? The candy bars?" I smiled. He continued to stare. God, I needed to leave. This was awkward. I cleared my throat. "Phoebe," I called. "Come here, girl." Phoebe stared at me, still sitting at Archer's feet. I moved my eyes between Archer and Phoebe. They were both completely still, two pairs of eyes trained on me. Well. My eyes settled on Archer. "Do you understand me? What I'm saying?" I asked. My words seemed to get his attention just a little. He stared at me for a beat and then his lips pursed and he let out a breath, seeming to make a decision. He walked around me and toward his house, Phoebe following close behind. I turned to watch him, confused, when he turned, looked at me and signaled me with his hand to follow him. I assumed he was walking me back to the gate. I hurried behind him, speed-walking to keep up with his long strides, the little traitor known as Phoebe staying with Archer the whole time, but turning to watch me follow, yapping excitedly. When I made it up to where he was standing waiting for me, I said, "You're not, like, an axe murderer or something, are you?" I was joking, but it did occur to me again that if I screamed, there wasn't anyone who would hear me. Trust your instincts, Bree, I reminded myself. Archer Hale raised his eyebrows and pointed down the slight incline to where he had left his axe, stuck in the stump. I looked down at it and back at him. "Right," I whispered. "The whole axe-murderer thing doesn't really work if you don't have your axe." That same miniscule lip quirk that I had seen in the parking lot of the drug store made the decision for me. I followed him the last of the way to the front of his house. He opened his front door and I gasped when I looked inside and saw a big, brick fireplace flanked by two floor to ceiling bookcases full of hardbacks and paperbacks. I started moving toward them like a mind-numb, book-loving robot, but I felt Archer's hand on my arm and halted. He held up his finger to indicate he'd just be a minute and walked inside. When he came back out a couple seconds later, he had a pad in his hands and he was writing something on it. I waited, and when he turned it to me, in very neat, all upper case letters, it said: YES, I UNDERSTAND YOU. IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU NEED? My eyes darted up to his and my mouth opened slightly to respond, but I snapped it shut before answering his question. Kind of rude question, by the way. But really, did I want anything else? I chewed on my lip for a minute, switching my weight between legs again as he watched me, waiting for my answer. The look on his face was wary and watchful, as if he had no idea if I was going to answer him or bite him, and he was prepared for either. "Uh, I just, I felt badly for the other day. I didn't know you didn't… speak, and I just wanted to let you know that it wasn't intentional, what I said… I just… I'm new in town and…" Well, this was going really well. Jesus. "Do you want to get a pizza or something?" I blurted out, my eyes widening. I hadn't exactly decided to go there, I just had. I looked at him hopefully. He stared back like I was an advanced math problem he couldn't interpret. He frowned at me and then brought his pen to the pad, never breaking eye contact. Finally, he looked down as he wrote and then raised the pad to me: NO. I couldn't help the laugh that erupted. He didn't smile, just kept looking at me warily. My laughter died. I whispered, "No?" A brief look of confusion passed over his face as he watched me and he picked up his pad and wrote something else. When he held it up, he had added a word under his first one. It now said: NO, THANKS. I let my breath out, feeling my cheeks heat. "Okay. I understand. Well, again, sorry for the misunderstanding in the parking lot. And… sorry for barging in on you today… that my dog…" I scooped Phoebe up in my arms. "Well, it was nice to meet you. Oh! By the way, I didn't really meet you. I know your name, but I'm Bree. Bree Prescott. And I'll just let myself out." I hitched my thumb over my shoulder and walked backwards and then turned hurriedly and walked briskly back up the driveway toward the gate. I heard his footsteps behind me, walking in the opposite direction, back to his woodpile, I assumed. I let myself out the gate, but didn't close it all the way. Instead, I stood on the other side, with my hand still on the warm wood. Well, that was weird. And embarrassing. What had I been thinking asking him to have pizza with me? I looked up at the sky, putting my hand to my forehead and grimacing. As I stood there thinking about it, something occurred to me. I had meant to ask Archer if he knew sign, but in my awkwardness, I had forgotten. And then he brought out that stupid pad of paper. But it was now that I realized, Archer Hale had never once watched my lips as I talked. He had watched my eyes. I turned around and walked back through his gate, marching back down to the woodpile behind his house, Phoebe still in my arms. He was standing there, holding the axe in his hands, a piece of wood standing upright on the stump, but he wasn't swinging. He was just staring at it, a small frown on his face, looking deep in thought. And when he spotted me, a look of surprise flashed over his face before his eyes settled into that same narrow wariness. When Phoebe saw him, she started yapping and panting again. "You're not deaf," I said. "You can hear just fine." He remained still for a minute, but then he stuck his axe in the stump, walked past me and looked back in the same way he had done the first time, gesturing to me to follow him. I did. He walked through the door of his house and again emerged with the same pad and pen in his hands. After a minute, he held the pad up: I DIDN'T TELL YOU I WAS DEAF. I paused. "No, you didn't," I said softly. "But you can't speak?" He looked at me and then brought the pad up and wrote for half a minute and then turned it toward me: I CAN SPEAK. I JUST LIKE TO SHOW OFF MY NICE PENMANSHIP. I stared at the words, digesting them, furrowing my brow and then looked up at his face. "Is that you being funny?" I asked, still frowning. He raised his brows. "Right," I said, tilting my head. "Well, you might want to work on that." We stood there staring at each other for a few seconds, when he sighed heavily, brought the pad of paper up again and wrote: IS THERE SOMETHING ELSE YOU WANT? I looked up at him. "I know sign language," I said. "I could teach you. I mean, you wouldn't get to show off your penmanship, haha, but it's a quicker way to communicate." I smiled, hopeful, trying to make him smile too. Did he smile? Was he even capable? He stared at me for several beats before he placed the pad and pen down gently on the ground next to him, straightened up, brought his hands up and signed, I already know sign language. I startled slightly, and a lump came to my throat. No one had signed to me for over six months and it brought my dad, the feel of my dad's presence, front and center. "Oh," I breathed out, using my voice because Phoebe was in my arms. "Right. You must have talked to your uncle that way." He frowned, probably wondering how I knew about his uncle at all, but he didn't ask. Finally, he signed, No. I blinked at him, and after a minute cleared my throat. "No?" I asked. No, he repeated. Silence again. I exhaled. "Well, I know it sounds kind of stupid, but I thought maybe we could be… friends." I shrugged, letting out an uncomfortable laugh. Archer narrowed his eyes again but just looked at me, not even writing anything down. I looked between him and the pad, but when it became clear that he wasn't going to "say" anything, I whispered, "Everyone needs friends." Everyone needs friends? Really, Bree? Good grief, you sound pathetic. He kept looking at me. I sighed, feeling embarrassed again, but also disappointed. "Okay, well suit yourself, I guess. I'll just go now." Truly, why was I disappointed? Travis had been right–this guy just didn’t respond to niceties. He stared at me unmoving, his deep, whiskey-colored eyes flaring as I began to back away. I wanted to move all that shaggy hair out of his face and get rid of the facial hair so I could really see what he looked like. He really did seem to have a nice face under all the shaggy scruff. I sighed heavily. "Okay. Well, then, I guess I'll be on my way…" Just shut up already, Bree and GO. Clearly this person wants nothing to do with you. I felt his eyes following me as I turned and walked up the driveway and out his gate, this time shutting it firmly behind me. I leaned against it for a minute, scratching absently under Phoebe's chin, wondering what was wrong with me. What had been the point of all that? Why hadn't I just gotten my damn dog and left? "Damn dog," I said to Phoebe, scratching her more. She licked at my face, ruffing lightly. I laughed and kissed her back. As I got on my bike and started riding away, I heard the chopping begin again. CHAPTER 6 Archer – 7 years old, May Where was I? I felt like I was swimming upwards in the pool at the YMCA, the top of the water miles and miles away. Noises started up in my ears and there was a pain in my neck, almost like a really bad sore throat that was both on the inside and the outside. I tried to remember how I'd gotten hurt, but only shadows moved around my head. I pushed them away. Where was I? Mama? I wanted my mama. I felt the tears, hot and heavy, leak out of my closed eyes, down my cheeks. I tried not to cry. Strong men shouldn't cry. Strong men should protect others, like my uncle Connor. Only he had cried. He had cried so hard, yelling up at the sky and falling to his knees right there on the pavement. Oh no. Oh no. Don't think about that. I tried to move my body, but it felt like someone had tied weights to my arms and legs, even my fingers and toes. I thought I might be moving just a little, but I wasn't sure. I heard a woman's voice say, "Shhh, he's waking up. Let him do it slowly. Let him do it himself." Mama, mama. Please be here too. Please be okay. Please don't be lying on the side of the road. More warm tears slipped out of my eyes. My entire body suddenly felt like hot pins and needles were being stuck in my skin. I tried to yell for help but I didn't even think I parted my lips. Oh God, the pain seemed to be waking up everywhere, like a monster coming alive in the dark under my bed. After a few minutes of just breathing, just coming closer and closer to what I could feel was the surface, I opened my eyelids, squinting because there was a bright light right above me. "Turn down the light, Meredith," I heard to my left. I opened my eyes again, letting them get used to the light and saw an older nurse with short, blond hair looking down at me. I opened my lips. "Mama" I tried to say, but nothing came out. "Shhh," the nurse said, "don't try to talk, honey. You were in an accident. You're in the hospital, Archer, and we're taking real good care of you, okay? My name is Jenny and that's Meredith." She smiled sadly and pointed to a younger nurse behind her, checking something on the machine next to my bed. I nodded my head. Where was my mama? More tears fell down my cheeks. "Okay, good boy," Jenny said. "Your uncle Nathan is right outside. Let me go get him. He'll be real happy you're awake." I lay there staring up at the ceiling for a few minutes before the door opened and shut and Uncle Nate was looking down into my face. "Welcome back, little soldier," he said. His eyes had red all around them and he looked like he hadn't showered in a while. But Uncle Nate always looked a little weird in some way or another. Some days he had his shirt inside out, others he was wearing two different shoes. I thought it was funny. He told me that it was because his brain was so busy working on more important stuff, he didn't have time to think about whether his clothes were put on right. I thought that was a good answer. Plus, he slipped me good stuff like candy and ten-dollar bills. He told me to start a stash somewhere no one could find my money. He said I'd thank him later and gave me a wink like I'd know what "later" was when it came. I opened my mouth again, but Jenny and Uncle Nate both shook their heads and Jenny reached for something on the table next to her. She turned around with a pad and a pencil and handed it to me. I took it from her and brought it up, writing one word: MAMA? Jenny's eyes moved away from that word and Uncle Nate looked down at his feet. Right in that moment, the whole accident came screaming back into my brain–pictures and words pounding through my mind so that I slammed my head back on the pillow and clamped my teeth together. I opened my mouth and screamed and screamed and screamed, but the room remained silent. CHAPTER 7 Bree On Saturday as I was clocking out at the diner, a number came up on my phone that I didn't recognize. "Hello," I answered. "Hey, Bree? This is Melanie. We met in the diner last week?" "Oh, hi!" I said, waving bye to Maggie as I walked toward the door. "Yes, of course I remember you." Maggie smiled and waved back. "Oh good!" she said. "Well I hope I didn't catch you at a bad time, but me and Liza are going out tonight, and we wanted to see if you'd like to join us." I stepped outside into the muggy afternoon sunshine and started walking toward my car. I remembered my thought about trying to be a normal girl again, do normal girl stuff. "Um, well, yeah, okay, that sounds good. Sure, I'd love to." "Okay, great! We'll pick you up. Nine okay?" "Yeah, that's good. I'll be ready." I gave her my address and she knew right where it was, and so we said goodbye and hung up. Just as I was putting the key in my lock, I noticed a group of boys about ten or twelve years old on the other side of the street, laughing uproariously. The bigger of the boys was pushing a smaller kid who was wearing glasses and had an arm full of books. As the big kid gave the smaller boy a particularly hard shove, the boy lurched forward, his books scattering on the sidewalk. The other boys laughed some more and walked off, one of them calling behind him, "Nice one, freak!" Even from across the street, I could see the embarrassment that washed over the small boy's face right before he squatted down to pick up his books. Little jerks. God, I hated bullies. I headed across the street to help the boy. When I got there, he looked up at me cautiously, his chin quivering slightly. I noticed that he had a light scar where he must have had surgery to fix a cleft palate. "Hey," I said quietly, smiling a small smile at him and bending down to help him pick up the books. "You okay?" "Yeah," he said quietly, his eyes darting to me and then away as his cheeks colored. "You're a reader, huh?" I asked, tilting my head toward the books. He nodded, still looking shy. I looked at the title in my hand. "Harry Potter… hmm. This is a good one. Do you know why I like this one so much?" His eyes found mine and he shook his head no, but didn't look away. "Because it's about an underdog who no one at all believed in–this funny looking kid in glasses who lived under his aunt and uncle's stairs. But guess what? He ends up doing some pretty cool stuff despite everything he has going against him. There's nothing better than watching someone no one expects to win, come out ahead, don't you think?" The little boy's eyes grew wide and he nodded his head. I stood up and so did he. As I handed him the books I had collected, I said, "Keep up the reading. Girls love it." I winked at him and his face broke into a huge grin, beaming at me. I smiled back and turned to walk away when I noticed Archer Hale standing in a doorway just a few stores away, watching us, an intense, unreadable expression on his face. I smiled at him, tilting my head, and something seemed to pass between us again. I blinked and Archer looked away, turning to walk down the street. He looked back at me once as he moved away, but when I caught his eye, he immediately turned again and kept walking. I stood there for a couple seconds, watching Archer walk in one direction, and then turned my head to see the little boy walking in the opposite direction. I huffed out a breath and turned around and walked back across the street to my car. I stopped at the local nursery on the way out of downtown and picked up some flowers and soil and a couple plastic planters. When I got home, I changed into shorts and a t-shirt and spent a couple hours re-potting the flowers, placing them on my porch and doing a general yard clean-up, including weeding and sweeping off the front stairs. One of them was loose, and getting looser, but I was a disaster when it came to home improvement projects. I'd have to call George Connick. When I stood back to admire all my work, I couldn't help smiling at my little cottage. It was adorable. I went inside and took a long shower, scrubbing the dirt from under my nails and shaving everywhere. Then I turned on the small radio that was in the cottage and listened to a local music station and took some extra time doing my hair, drying it, and curling it with a curling iron so that it was long and wavy. I put on my make-up carefully and then lotioned my legs up so that they would look nice in my stretch knit, dark silver dress with the scoop back. It was casual yet sexy and I hoped it would work for where we were going tonight. I made it even slightly more casual with my slip on black sandals. The last time I had worn this dress was a graduation party my dorm threw. I had drunk my fair share of keg beer, laughed with the other girls on my floor, and made out with a guy I had always thought was cute, but hadn't spoken to until that night. He wasn't a very good kisser, but I was just drunk enough not to care. As I stood there remembering, thinking about the girl I was, I missed her. I missed my old self. I hadn't been a girl unmarked by tragedy. I wasn't naïve to the ways of the world. I knew that you weren't guaranteed anything and that life wasn't always fair. But my father and I had survived the tragedy of my mother's illness together and we were strong. I had never once considered that he would be snatched from me in an instant, in a senseless moment that left me alone and reeling. And that I wouldn't get to say goodbye. Perhaps this road trip that I was on wasn't the answer I had hoped it was. It hadn't really been a conscious choice though. Everything in Ohio had reminded me of my dad, my grief, my fear and my loneliness. Several numb months after that night, I had packed a small suitcase, put Phoebe in her dog carrier, got in my car and drove off. It felt like the only option. The sadness was suffocating, claustrophobic. I needed to escape. I forced myself to snap out of it before I sunk too far down into fear and melancholy. It was Saturday night, the weekend. And on the weekend, normal girls went out with their girlfriends and had some fun. I deserved a little bit of that, didn’t I… didn't I? Melanie and Liza pulled up in front of my cottage a few minutes after nine and when I saw their headlights, I went outside, locking up behind me. The door to the small Honda swung open and Justin Timberlake blared out, breaking the silence of the night. I grinned as I pulled the back door open and got in to Melanie and Liza saying warmly, "Hey!" "You look hot!" Liza offered, looking back over her shoulder as Melanie pulled away. "Thanks," I smiled. "You too!" They were both wearing skirts and tank tops and I felt relieved that I had chosen a similar outfit. As we drove the thirty minutes to the other side of the lake, we chatted casually about my job at the diner and how I liked Pelion so far, and Melanie and Liza told me a little bit about their summer life-guarding. We pulled up in front of a bar called The Bitter End Lakeside Saloon, a small, wooden structure by the side of the road with a parking lot out front. As we got out of Melanie's car, I could see that the front was decorated with fishing poles, lobster cages, boating signs, tackle boxes, and other things lake related. We walked inside to the smell of beer and popcorn, the sounds of laughter, loud talk, and pool balls hitting each other. The bar looked a lot bigger on the inside than the outside had indicated. It felt simultaneously dive-like and trendy, with more fishing items and signs adorning the walls. We showed our ID's to the bouncer and took a seat at a table by the bar. By the time we got our first round of drinks, there was already a line forming at the door. We spent the first twenty minutes or so laughing and chatting. Melanie and Liza were scoping out the guys they thought were cute and trying not to make it obvious. Melanie noticed someone almost immediately and went about the business of catching his eye. It worked and after a few minutes, he came over and asked her to dance. She followed him away from our table, looking back and winking as Liza and I shook our heads, laughing. We signaled the waitress for another round. I was already having fun. As I tipped back my beer, a man just walking in caught my eye. His head was turned, but I could see his broad shoulders and long, muscular legs encased in a pair of well-worn looking jeans. Oh, wow. Just the sheer size of him, his build, and his wavy brown hair made me blink and train my eyes his way as he began to turn. He turned toward me, laughing at something the guy next to him said and our eyes met. Travis Hale. His eyes flared slightly, and his smile grew larger as he made a beeline for our table. Two girls trailing along behind him stopped and looked dejected when they saw where he was headed. They turned to the group behind them. "Bree Prescott," he said, his eyes lowering to my breasts for a flash before returning to my face. "Travis Hale," I answered, smiling and taking another pull on my beer. He grinned at me. "I didn't know you'd be here tonight." He glanced over at Liza and said simply, "Liza." She took a sip of her drink and said, "Hey, Trav." Liza stood up and said, "I'm gonna go to the ladies room. I'll be back." "Oh, okay, do you want me to go with you?" I asked, starting to stand. Travis put his hand on my arm. "I'm sure she can manage," he said. "I'm good," Liza said, her eyes lingering on Travis's hand on my arm. "I'll be back in a few." And with that, she turned and walked off. Travis looked back at me. "So I thought I was the one who was supposed to give you the welcome tour." I laughed and then shrugged, looking up at him through my lashes. He grinned again. He had a really nice grin. Somewhat predatory, I supposed, but was that a bad thing? I supposed it depended. But I had two drinks in me, and so for right then it felt good. Travis leaned in. "So, Bree, this road trip you're on… when's it going to end?" I considered his question. "I don't really have a specific plan, Travis. I suppose I'll turn around and go home eventually." I took a drink of my beer. He nodded. "Think you'll stick around here for a while?" I smiled. "Depends," I said, frowning slightly. "On what?" "On if I keep feeling safe here," I blurted out. I didn't necessarily mean to say it, but the beer was hitting my empty stomach and my bloodstream like a truth serum. I sighed and peeled up the edge of the label on my beer bottle suddenly feeling exposed. Travis studied me for a couple beats and then smiled a slow grin. "Well, that's good then because as it turns out, safety is my specialty." I raised my eyes to his face and couldn't help laughing at his cocky expression. "Oh, I have a feeling that you're anything but safe, Officer Hale." He faked hurt and slid his body into the seat that Liza had vacated a few minutes before. "Well that hurts me deeply, Bree. Why would you say that?" I laughed. "Well, for one," I leaned forward, "if those blondes who came in with you could shoot poison arrows with their eyes, I would have been dead about fifteen minutes ago. And the redhead to my left, she hasn't taken her eyes off of you for one second since you got here. I even think I saw her wipe a little drool off of her lip. I have a feeling they all have plans for you tonight." I raised one eyebrow. He kept his eyes trained on me, not glancing at any of them. He leaned back in his chair, cocking his head and bringing one arm over the back. "I can't help the ideas other people get in their heads. And anyway, what if my plans are different? What if my plans involve you?" He smiled lazily. God, this guy was good. All cool charm and self-confidence. But it felt good to harmlessly flirt with someone–I was glad I hadn't completely forgotten how. I smiled back at him and took a sip of my beer, keeping my eyes on him. His eyes narrowed in on my lips around the neck of the bottle and flared slightly. "Do you play pool?" I asked after a minute, changing the subject. "I do anything you want me to do," he said easily. I laughed. "Okay then, impress me with your geometry skills," I said, starting to stand up. "Absolutely," he said back, taking my hand. We moved over to the pool tables and Travis ordered us another round as we waited for our turn. After a little while, Melanie and Liza, and the guys Melanie had met all came over, too, and we spent the rest of the night laughing and playing pool. Travis was way too good at pool and won every game easily, clearly taking pleasure in showing off his skills. Liza had switched to water early on so that she could drive us home, and I did as well close to midnight. I didn't want the next day, which was my day off, to be spent recovering in bed. When the lights flashed indicating the bar would be closing, Travis pulled me in to his body and said, "God, Bree, you're the most beautiful girl I've ever seen." His voice was like silk. "Let me take you out to dinner this week." The drinks I had had earlier were wearing off, and I suddenly felt slightly uncomfortable by Travis's smooth moves and forward flirting. "Um…" I hedged. Liza interrupted us suddenly saying, "Ready, Bree?" and Travis gave her an annoyed look. "Everyone has to eat," Travis offered, looking back at me and smiling charmingly. I laughed and hesitantly wrote my number down on a napkin for Travis, making a mental note to buy more minutes. I had left my cell phone back in Cincinnati when I left and had picked up one of those toss-away cell phones. It worked for me, but I just kept forgetting to keep it stocked with minutes. I said goodnight to everyone, and Liza, Melanie, and I left, laughing all the way to the car. Once we got on the road, Melanie said, "Travis Hale, Bree? Geez, you went straight to the Pelion dating big leagues, didn't you? Hell, the state of Maine big leagues." I laughed. "Is that what Travis Hale is considered?" "Well, yeah. I mean, he gets around, but I don't blame him. Girls usually throw themselves at him–trying to pin him down. Maybe you'll be the one that finally does it." She winked back at me and Liza laughed. "Have you girls…" "Oh, no, no," they both said simultaneously. Then Liza continued. "Too many of our friends hooked up with him and then thought they were in love. We've seen the destruction he leaves in his wake. Just be careful." I smiled, but didn't say anything. Careful was my middle name these days. However, despite the fact that Travis's flirting had made me feel slightly uncomfortable at the end of the night, I was proud of myself for taking a few steps in that direction at all. And I'd had a fun time. We chatted a little more about the other guys they had met and before I knew it, we were pulling up in front of my cottage. I climbed out, whispering, "Bye! Thank you so much!" not wanting to wake any of the neighbors. "We'll call you!" they called, waving back and then driving away. I washed my face and brushed my teeth and that night, I went to bed smiling, thinking, hoping, maybe I'd wake up smiling too. CHAPTER 8 Bree I woke up gasping. Before I could even sit up, I was catapulted straight into the mother of all flashbacks. It had the strength and vividness of the ones I had had directly following my