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(Kendrick/Coulter #8)
January 2008
ISBN: 0-451-22277-6

Loni Kendra MacEwen could barely contain her excitement. The two-bedroom house was small and dated, but she saw it with the eye of an interior decorator, and there were possibilities everywhere she looked. She moved slowly through the rooms, envisioning white priscilla curtains at the windows, a diamond-hard polyurethane wax on the worn hardwood floors, bright pillows and throws on the overstuffed sofa and chairs, and designer shades of paint on the walls. She could also imagine a cheerful blaze in the brick fireplace, with her huge yellow dog, Hannah, snoozing before the hearth.

Normally Loni never would have considered renting an old house, much less a furnished one, but something about this neglected bungalow appealed to her. Maybe it was the charming bay windows, the built-in bookcases at each side of the fireplace, or the old-fashioned archways trimmed in burnished oak, but she was more inclined to think it was the essence of the house itself; a warm, peaceful feeling had enveloped her the moment she stepped inside.

Smiling at her good fortune, she went to stand at the kitchen sink to gaze out the window at the large backyard enclosed by a sturdy, six-foot cedar fence. There was even an oversized dog door that opened into the attached garage. While Loni was at her shop, Hannah would have shelter from the weather, an important feature in the high-desert community of Crystal Falls, Oregon, where the winters could be long and harsh.

The sudden chirp of her cell phone made Loni jump. Expecting a call from her older sister, she hurried to the mahogany dining table and plucked the device from her purse. Bypassing hello, she answered with, "You'll never guess what."

Deirdre, a second grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary a few blocks away, laughed and said, "You got the house!"

Sinking onto a ladder-backed chair, Loni pushed a curly tendril of dark brown hair from her eyes. "It was love at first sight. I just signed a one-year lease. I'm so happy I want to shout."

"Oh, Loni, what wonderful news! I was starting to think you'd never find a place that would take Hannah."

Having an eleven-month-old Fila Brasileiro mastiff that weighed nearly two hundred pounds did come with its own set of problems. Loni couldn't count the lease applications she'd filled out over the last two months that had been denied. "I got lucky," she told her sister. "The man who owns the place lives in Portland, and he's had some bad experiences with property management companies."

"So he was motivated to lease the house without involving a third party?"

"Exactly. He never even blinked when I mentioned Hannah."

"What about when the place needs repairs? It's a long drive from Portland for him to fix a leaky faucet."

"If something goes wrong, he gave me permission to call a handyman, deduct the cost from my rent, and just send him the receipt."

"That works." Deirdre sighed. "I'm delighted for you, absolutely delighted."

Loni grinned. "Don't sound too enthusiastic, or I'll think you're glad to be rid of me."

"Ha. I've loved having you, and so has Michael. You know that. Can I come see the house? The boys have Kids' Club until four o'clock, and I was planning to go grocery shopping, but the heck with that. What's the address?"

Smiling happily, Loni grabbed the lease agreement and read off the information.

"Oak Street?" A note of alarm crept into Deirdre's voice. "Isn't that in an older section of town?"

Loni knew what was coming and ignored the question. "It's perfect for me and Hannah, Deirdre. Just wait until you see it. Very quaint, with darling bay windows, beautiful oak trim, and a fenced-in yard. There's even a dog door opening into the garage."

"Quaint?" Deirdre echoed. "Quaint as in old?"

"Yes, fairly old," Loni finally confessed. "I'm guessing it was built sometime in the forties."

"Oh, Loni, what on earth were you thinking? You'll never be happy in an old house. You'll have psychometric divinations bombarding you left and right."

It never ceased to amaze Loni that her sister, the only non-clairvoyant female in the MacEwen family, knew so many paranormal buzzwords. "Psycho what?"

"Psychometric divination. That's the appropriate term for the phenomenon that sometimes occurs when you touch things."

"What's wrong with just calling it a nasty jolt?"

"Nothing except that it's boring."

"Boring suits me fine. I swear, if I had a deformed toe you'd call it a lower-digit deviation."

"Don't compare your gift to a deformity."

"Why not?" Loni's gift, as members of her family persisted in calling it, had adversely affected her entire life. As a child she'd had to be tutored at home. As a young adult, she'd been unable to hold down a job or attend college. Even now, when she was thirty-one, her social life was next to nonexistent. She rarely dated, she felt like a pariah at church, and as icing on the cake, she was forced to keep other decorators on the payroll so she could focus only on new construction. "It feels like a deformity."

With an ease born of long practice, Loni pushed away the negative thoughts and walked slowly to the living room, barely hearing her sister, who chattered in that shrill, nonstop way of hers when she got upset.

"Back to the house," Loni cut in, giving the small living room an appreciative look. It was going to be so lovely when she finished fixing it up. "I understand your concerns and know it would be best to rent a brand-new place. Unfortunately they don't grow on trees, and my applications for the few I found were turned down because of Hannah. Now I'm glad they were. I've done a complete walk-through here and touched practically everything— cupboards, door-knobs, windowsills, faucets, and even all the furniture. I've picked up nothing unpleasant. Not every surface affects me, you know. It mostly happens only when I touch a person or the possession of someone who's been through something terrible and needs help, or soon will go through something terrible and needs help."

"The house is furnished?"

"I sold practically everything before I left Washington, hoping to buy new. Now I can wait to worry about furniture later."

"Oh, Loni." Deirdre's voice went even shriller. "What'll you do if you start having problems and can't break the lease?"

"Live with you, I guess." Loni laughed. Trailing a hand over the back of the sofa, she said, "Would you stop, Deirdre? I'm a big girl. If I'd thought for a moment I might have problems here, I never would have rented the place."

"It still worries me."

"Well, stop worrying. It's a friendly little house. Have you ever walked through a door and felt instantly at home?"

"Yes," Deirdre replied, beginning to sound calmer. "When Michael and I were looking to buy, that's exactly how we felt when we finally found our house."

"Well, that's the feeling I got here. It's just right somehow. I can't wait to start decorating. I'm thinking of sage green here in the living room, with a darker shade on the fireplace wall to accentuate the brick and oak. It's going to be a dollhouse when I'm finished with it."

"I'm sure it will be," Deirdre conceded. "You're a professional decorator, after all. And a one-year lease will be perfect, too. That'll give you time to get your shop on its feet and make sure you like living in Crystal Falls before you buy a place of your own."

Loni pirouetted slowly to take in the room again. "I know it's premature, but I'm no longer quite so worried about liking it here. All the snow was my biggest concern, but now that I've found this house I can cross that worry off my list. The driveway and front walk are pretty short. I'll be able to clear them in no time. I'm actually excited. Isn't that great?"

"It's fabulous." Deirdre released a taut breath. "I'm sorry for going on and on at you. I just want you to be happy, is all."

"I know that, and I honestly think I will be here. It's such a cute little place. Nice solid doors, too, inside and out. Once I get some dead bolts and a security system installed, I'll feel safe as a baby in its mother's arms."

"We need to celebrate somehow," Deirdre suggested, clearly trying to show the enthusiasm she had failed to at first. "How about a special dinner tonight?"

"That'd be nice." Loni glanced at her watch. "And since you worked all day, I'll do the cooking. How does beef bourguignonne with hot homemade biscuits sound? Gram's recipe only takes about three hours. I'll stop at a store on the way over to pick up everything I'll need. We can feed the boys hot dogs, get them into bed, and have a grown-up night."

"Beef bourguignonne? Yum. I haven't had that in ages. I'll call Michael and ask him to pick up a nice burgundy from the wine shop. Is there any kind you especially like?"

Loni was about to answer when a bright flash of light suddenly blinded her. The next instant she saw a jet-haired cowboy standing before the fireplace hearth, his booted feet planted wide apart, his work-roughened hands resting on his narrow hips. The shadow cast by the brim of his chocolate-colored Stetson did little to diminish the burning intensity in his dark brown eyes.

"Loni?" Deirdre's voice seemed to come from a great distance. "Loni, are you still there?"

Loni tried to speak, but her throat felt paralyzed. She finally managed a faint whisper. "Oh, God, Dee, it's him."

"Who?" Deirdre demanded.

Loni could barely hear her sister now. It was like being trapped in a snow globe. She was in the same small living room, but it was different now, exactly how she'd imagined it would look in a few weeks when she finished decorating. A designer shade of sage green covered the walls, and colorful rugs graced the gleaming hardwood floors. An awful dizziness set her head to spinning, and for a moment she thought she might faint.

Then her senses suddenly cleared, and the room came into sharper focus. The cowboy still stood before her. Under the blue shirt his shoulder muscles were bunched with tension. Loni could feel a cool breeze coming through an open window, and the scent of freshly cut grass wafted to her nostrils. Down the street somewhere, a dog was barking, and its owner yelled for it to be quiet.

She heard herself say, "That's an absolutely preposterous suggestion."

She started to turn away, but the cowboy clamped a hard hand over her arm. "Look, lady," he said in a deep voice that curled around her like hot wisps of smoke. "I'm no happier about this mess than you are. All this hocus-pocus stuff gives me the willies. I'll also remind you that you're the one who sought me out, not the other way around."

Loni jerked her arm free of his grasp. "If I give you the willies, why are you even here?"

"That's a damned good question."

The vision evaporated as quickly as it came. An icy chill had raised goose bumps on Loni's skin, and she was shaking violently. The awful dizziness assailed her again, and she dropped onto the sofa, too stunned to remain standing.

"Loni!" Deirdre's voice still sounded far away.

Struggling to focus, Loni finally spotted the cell phone lying on the hardwood floor where she must have dropped it. With a trembling hand she scooped up the device and pressed it to her ear.

"I'm okay," she managed to croak, even though her head was still whirling.

"You scared me half to death. What happened? Did you fall or something? I heard a loud crash."

"I, um, dropped the phone." Loni swallowed to steady her voice. "It was him, Deirdre." Loni had been seeing the cowboy in her dreams practically all her life, but this was the first time she'd ever seen him in a waking vision. "My dream cowboy. It was my dream cowboy."

"What?" Deirdre asked incredulously. "Where did you see him? Does he live next door or something?"

"No, no." Another wave of nausea made Loni's stomach pitch. "I didn't actually see him. Not in the flesh, anyway." In the MacEwen family it went without saying what Loni meant by that. "He was standing in front of the fireplace—" Loni broke off and swallowed hard again. "He touched me, Dee. That's never happened before, not ever."

"You don't sound so good."

"I'm dizzy and sick to my stomach. He crossed over somehow."

"Crossed over? I'm not following."

"He was real." Loni heard the hysteria in her voice and struggled to calm down. "Not just a vision, but real. I actually felt his hand on my arm."

"I'll be right there," Deirdre said. "Sit down and don't move until I get there."

Loni had no trouble complying with her sister's orders. Still filmed with cold sweat, her body quivered with weakness, and every time she opened her eyes the room spun.

True to her word, Deirdre arrived in less than ten minutes. She burst through the unlocked front door as if a full-scale avalanche were chasing at her heels, not a far stretch considering her attire, a powder pink parka over a sweater, and black slacks tucked tidily into fur-trimmed snow boots. Her cropped hair, spiked with styling gel, poked up every which way like swirls of rich, dark chocolate. "Are you all right?"

"A bit better now, thank goodness." Deirdre rushed over to the sofa, her bright blue eyes taking sharp measure of Loni's face. "Oh, honey, you're white as a sheet. Sit tight. I'll get you some water."

She hurried to the kitchen, only to return just as quickly. "No drinking glasses. What was I thinking? The water probably isn't even turned on."

Throat still burning, Loni rasped, "That's fine. I don't need a drink." What she needed was to lie down in a dark room and regroup. "I'm just feeling a little sick." Propping her elbows on her knees, she buried her face in her hands. "I'm sorry about this. I don't normally feel so awful afterward. Only a little dizzy and disoriented for a few seconds."

"It's the house. I knew it would cause you problems." Deirdre sank onto the sofa and rubbed Loni's back. "Just look at you. Ice-cold and shaking like a leaf."

"It isn't the house. I've been seeing the cowboy all my life."

"Never when you were wide-awake and in the middle of a conversation. Trust me, it's the house. He's apparently been here at one time or another and stood by the fireplace. When you touched it you had a psychometric episode. That's all."

"No." Loni dropped her hands to meet her sister's gaze. "I didn't touch the fireplace. More to the point, this room was decorated just the way I hope to do it." Loni described the walls and other appointments. "I was seeing into the future, Dee, not the past." "

Precognition?" Deirdre frowned. "So he hasn't been here yet."

"No, not yet." Loni curled her arms around her waist. "I'm scared, Dee."

"Scared of what?"

"Of finally meeting him. That's what this means, you know, that he'll soon be standing right here in this room."

"And that's a bad thing? When we were girls it was all you talked about, meeting him someday."

Loni had long since abandoned the foolish, romantic notions of her youth. Men didn't take well to her psychic ability, and her dream cowboy would be no exception. "I'm not a girl anymore." Loni groped for the words to explain how she felt. "My life is in a shambles. All I want is to pick up the pieces and move forward. The last thing I need is another complication."

"Meaning a man?"

Just the thought made Loni's stomach lurch again. "Especially a man."

"If it's the right man, it may be a lovely complication. Why on earth does that possibility frighten you?"

Loni rubbed her sleeves, trying to rid herself of the chill that seemed to have settled in her bones. "I don't want to love someone who can't love me back or bails out because he can't handle my gift. I don't want to let myself need someone, only to lose him. And last but not least, I'm not thrilled with the thought of being laughed at because I'm still a virgin at thirty-one."

"Laughed at?" Deirdre rolled her eyes. "Trust me, Loni, the right man won't bail out, and he definitely won't laugh at you for being a virgin. He'll be delighted. At least, Michael was."

"You were a virgin when you met Michael?"

"What do you think, that I slept with every guy at university?" Deirdre fished inside her pocket as she pushed to her feet. Once at the fireplace, she had a cigarette clamped between her lips and a lighter in her hand. Tonguing the cigarette to one corner of her mouth, she added, "With Mom breathing down my neck all the time, when did I ever have a chance to be promiscuous? I couldn't even forget my coat and walk across campus without her calling me to scold."

Loni had suspected for some time that Deirdre was smoking again, but actually seeing her do it was a shock. "You shouldn't do that. It's bad for you."

Narrowing her eyes against the sting, Deirdre exhaled a puff of smoke. "It settles my nerves. Did you know that Mom called me last night right after Michael and I made love?"

"No. What did she want?"

"To inform me that my failure to urinate after sexual intercourse is probably why I have this bladder infection. Can you imagine how it feels to know she can tune in at will, even behind our closed bedroom door? It's an invasion of our privacy, and I can't help but wonder how much she saw. I love her to pieces. Don't get me wrong. But it totally pisses me off when I find out she's been spying on us. Even worse, I don't dare tell Michael why I get so cross with her sometimes. He'd die of embarrassment."

Loni had been on the receiving end of their mother's psychic ability, but she'd never really resented it. "Mom doesn't mean to invade your privacy, Deirdre. Something just cues her, and she tunes in for a few seconds. The house is brimming over with keepsakes from our childhoods. I'm sure she doesn't intentionally touch something of yours so she can be a bedroom voyeur."

"I know." Deirdre exhaled another lungful of smoke. "But even though I know it's unintentional, her dropping in like that totally freaks me out."

"It isn't easy for you, is it? Being the only normal female in the family, I mean."

"Correction. In our family I'm the abnormal one. Gram and Mom both have the gift, and so do you. One clairvoyant female in each generation, and my number didn't hit. It hardly seems fair, since I'm the oldest. Why did it pass over me and go to you?"

"You wish you were psychic?" Loni couldn't imagine it. Yet, in many ways, that explained Deirdre's fascination with psychic phenomena and her penchant for memorizing all the scientific terms for them.

"I've always been the odd one out. I hear you and Mom and Gram talking, and it's like not knowing the alphabet at a spelling bee. I love all of you, and I enjoy being with you, but I feel like an outsider. I always have."

Loni could scarcely credit her ears. "Oh, Dee. I never realized you felt that way."

"I'm sorry for unloading on you right now. Bad timing. You have enough problems at the moment." She flicked ashes into the grate and sighed. "It's my guess that you're about to meet your cowboy, unless you can think of some way to alter the future."

Loni closed her eyes. "I can't alter the future. The Cheryl Blain incident proved that."

Deirdre snorted. "The Cheryl Blain fiasco, you mean. You did everything you possibly could, and it wasn't your fault she died. The police and news media are responsible for that."

Loni couldn't bear to think about it, especially not now. "I'm still not feeling well. Can you chauffeur me home and bring me back in the morning to get my car? I don't think I should try to drive right now."

"Sure," Deirdre said softly. She tossed the cigarette into the fireplace and stubbed it out with the toe of her boot. "I'm sorry seeing your cowboy has made you so sick."

Loni pushed weakly at the sofa cushion, struggling to gain her feet. Deirdre hurried over to grab her arm. As Loni came erect, the room seemed to tip off its axis.

"You okay to stand alone for a second?" Deirdre asked. "I'll go get your purse and coat."

Loni nodded even though she wasn't entirely sure she wouldn't fall. Deirdre vanished. Seconds later, she returned. With surprising deftness, she managed to push Loni's numb arms into the sleeves of her jacket.

"You're good at this," Loni murmured as Deirdre made fast work of fastening the buttons.

"It comes from dressing kids. You learn to get the job done quick."

Grateful for the thick folds of wool, Loni hugged the coat close. "Thank you. I was freezing." She glanced at the fireplace and then met her sister's worried gaze. "Any great ideas on how to avoid meeting a handsome cowboy?"

Deirdre smiled. "Only one. If you see a man in Wranglers and a Stetson, run like hell in the opposite direction."

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