Marcella Hollister’s first love has been missing for eighteen years after going MIA in Iraq. Her best friend, Callie, an adorable but agoraphobic gal, flips out when a mysterious package arrives on her doorstep containing her brother Sky’s old backpack, Is he dead or alive?
Marcella and Callie pour over the contents, looking for clues in the little brown bottles with the colorful labels that hold precious essential oils. What about the memory stick with the impossible-to-break password? And where in the world did Sky get hold of a velvet bag filled with emeralds?
When Marcella’s husband Quinn—her half-Seneca Indian husband with soul-stirring turquoise eyes—hears about this package from Sky, his jealousy spikes. He and Marcella have been married for seven years, and he’s not about to let some punk from the past mess that up.
Marcella’s not so sure how she feels, but the more she remembers her scalding hot relationship with Sky, the more she wonders about him. Is he the same boy she used to love who went off to war when she foolishly rejected him? Or have the years overseas in the Iraq War hardened him?When Callie is kidnapped and her older sister is found murdered, the chase through the Adirondack Mountains begins, where Marcella, Quinn, and Callie’s psychically gifted Bernese Mountain Dog named Beau find Sky hiding in the woods, afraid for his life and guarding the secrets of a potential cancer cure. The drug company MedicuRx will lose all if this new cure is made public, and they’ll use every weapon in their arsenal to find the medical records Sky hid on the memory stick.
The strange foursome join together to search for Callie before MedicuRx kills her. Against a virtual army linked to a rogue wing of the FBI, Marcella, Quinn, Sky, and Beau fight to escape the MedicuRx helicopters, keep the data safe, and bring Callie home alive.
Callie waved a yellow scarf from her pontoon boat and headed erratically toward my dock. The girl who’d been like a sister to me since I was thirteen had never mastered the art of steering. Matter of fact, she’d avoided getting her driver’s license for the past twenty years, and would probably never drive that old Buick her dotty mother left moldering in the garage.
Shocked to see her outside, I waved back, then swam to the dock and scrambled up the ladder to avoid getting crushed by her two-ton vessel. I grabbed my towel, blotted water from my face and hair, and wrapped it around my new bright pink one-piece suit. I’d been nervous to wear it—I thought it made my thighs look big. But now I’d been caught, and I couldn’t get that towel around me fast enough.
I watched the boat drift closer, shocked at my friend’s appearance. Her face twisted in despair. Her coal black hair hung limp on her shoulders, and her eyes puffed red. Instantly, my brain ran through the possibilities.
What got her out of the house?
Maybe somebody died.
Her sister? Not likely. She’d written off Willow years ago. They hardly spoke, even though they lived only two houses apart. And that woman was so nasty she’d probably live forever, preserved in her own acidic vapors.
Could it be her dog?
Beau had been sick a few months back. The Bernese Mountain Dog had been Callie’s constant companion for the past five years. But the life expectancy of the grand creatures was only eight or nine years. She’d been concerned for months, and Doc West, the vet who’d always been sweet on her, still paid her house calls for no extra charge. But when we’d spoken on the phone yesterday, she’d said Beau had recovered from his stomach problems and was doing fine.
Worried now, I grabbed the rope she tossed to me and secured it around a piling. The boat glided closer.
She looked horrible, as if someone had twisted her insides and squeezed all her pain up into her eyes.
Damn. Had someone hurt her again?
Some people were magnets for bad luck, and my dear friend seemed to attract trouble like mosquitoes to wet skin after a rainfall. Last year, her Honeoye Lake cottage had been broken into. The jerks had cleaned her out and beaten her senseless. She still bore the scar on her temple where the bastards had bashed her with her avant-garde pink flamingo centerpiece.
Yes. A pink flamingo. Not in her yard, on her coffee table. Draped with pink pearls and fake ivy. Don’t ask. And don’t look so surprised. My best friend cut a tragic figure, was pretty in a haunted sort of way, but I never said she had good taste. Of all the households in our quiet lakeside community here in upstate New York, her place was definitely the quirkiest.
Callie switched off the ignition, and the boat miraculously nudged the dock with a soft thump. I quickly secured the stern and offered her a hand. “Honey, what’s the matter?”
With a sob that sounded more like a hiccup, she heaved an oversized box over the railing and onto the dock, and climbed out after it. “You won’t believe this…”
I put my arm around her shoulders and squeezed. “Try me, Velvet.” Callie’s dark hair, delicate features, and big violet eyes used to remind me of the young Liz Taylor in National Velvet, thus the nickname.
She choked and wept fresh tears. Trembling, she glanced fearfully around her, then locked eyes with me. “Marcie, I…” With another sob, she fell on my shoulder. “Can we go inside, please?”
“Of course, sweetie.” I picked up the box and led her off the dock and up to the porch. Maneuvering backwards through the screen door, I got us both inside and laid the box on the coffee table, then sat her on the couch. “Now. Spill it.”
Instead of talking, she fell into a fresh gale of weeping. I patted her shoulders, hugged her, and let her get it all out. She tried to speak, but the intensity of her emotions made her stutter and wail some more.
Her newest disaster—whatever it was—already weighed heavily on me. The pain in her eyes was palpable, and I knew it was something huge without having to ask. Callie and I had shared high school crushes, teenage angst, kooky hairstyles, and unrequited love over the years. She’d been my maid of honor, in spite of her aversion to public places. A little extra Xanax had helped her through the ordeal where people actually looked at her and she had to converse with strangers. I’d thanked her from the bottom of my heart for that. I couldn’t have been married without Callie at my side.
“Callie? What’s wrong, sweetie?”
She looked at me, at the box, back at me, and burst into a fresh torrent of tears
I gave her a box of pink tissues, and she grabbed a handful, pressing them against her eyes. She leaned over, hands to face, and rocked back and forth.
My dear little Velvet rarely stepped outside and had all her goods mailed or hand delivered to her door. She’d been like this since freshman year in college. Although I still didn’t know all the awful details about the event that had messed her up so much, she’d dropped out of school and become a permanent cave dweller. I knew it had to do with two men in a black Mustang, hours of brutal rape, and the subsequent abortion her mother had forced her to have a few months later.
Mrs. Lissonneau had kept her locked up like a prisoner for four long months. I’d missed her dreadfully. When I finally was allowed back in her house, she’d cried on my shoulder for days. But she’d never been able to get up the courage to talk about it.
Like I said, my friend attracted trouble, and it had been that way since I’d known her.
After several minutes, the tears finally slowed. Wiping her eyes, she looked around nervously. “Is your mother home?”
“Nope. She’s playing bridge. You’re safe.”
My mother, who insisted I call her Thelma, didn’t know the meaning of tact. She’d always resented my friendship with Callie and didn’t hide it, making rude comments about her agoraphobia and even stooping to insult her family when she could. It was all veiled, of course. But my mother had a mean streak in her, especially when it came to Callie, and as much as I loved her, she frequently galled me to red-faced fury. At times I was certain I’d been adopted.
Callie started to shiver, so I wrapped her in a navy blue throw that we kept folded on the back of the couch. “Are you cold, honey?” I tucked it around her. She was so tiny, and looked as though she’d lost weight again. “There you go. It’ll be okay.”
She closed her eyes. “Where’s Quinn?”
“Relax. He’s up at the barn, refinishing that set of Eastlake chairs we just got in.”
“When will he be back?”
“Not for hours.”
Her agoraphobia didn’t end with the outdoors. She’d also managed to cultivate a severe case of social anxiety, and even my sweet, dear husband scared her
Quinn Black Eagle Hollister was the unique result of the union between his British playwright father, who died very young, and a beautiful Seneca Native American, White Dawn. She’d raised Quinn to be one with nature, to abhor artificial anything, and to be incredibly clean. My sweet spouse insisted on doing all of our housework, since my attempts never passed muster. And although it sounded weird, it never once detracted from his raw masculinity.
With his lean strong body, lovely dark skin, and angular face, he resembled an Indian brave, with the exception of his startling turquoise eyes he’d inherited from his father. The color of the stones in Native American jewelry, they had the effect of seeing right into my inner core. It was hard for me to imagine anyone being afraid of Quinn, but I empathized as best I could with poor Callie’s fears.
She leaned back and closed her eyes, still hiccupping a few sobs. “I haven’t seen you in so long, Marcie. God.”
As frustrating as it was to wait for her to open up, I knew I needed to be patient. And I felt a little guilty, because since we’d reinvested in our antique shop to expand the old barn and fix up the place, I’d had very few free days to take the boat over to her place on the other side of the lake. I think she’d gotten even more reclusive since, and I struggled not to let myself feel too much blame for her loneliness.
Of course, Honeoye, one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, wasn’t exactly a remote location. The shores were populated with residents and renters alike, and although it wasn’t as people-packed as a city, there were plenty of folks to socialize with, including those who’d graduated from our high school. But dear Callie only hung out with me, a responsibility I’d shouldered from day one without resentment. I loved Callie like a sister, and taking care of her was a privilege.
She shifted closer to me, but still looked scared. “The only one you have to worry about is Ruby, and she’s sleeping.” I chuckled and pointed to our prize-winning ring-necked parakeet, whose rosy-tangerine color had won her best in class last summer. She snoozed on her perch. She’d been doing that a lot since her mother passed away two weeks ago. Poor old Sarafina had succumbed to some rare condition Doc West had mumbled and I hadn’t understood. Ruby’s reaction—not eating and sleeping most of the time—had been immediate. The doctor called it clinical depression, but I called it natural.
Callie looked at Ruby briefly and buried her head in her hands. “Okay. I… I can’t breathe. Marcie. Help me.” In seconds, fat tears soaked her cheeks.
I pulled her toward me, trying not to stare at the box on the coffee table. “Callie. Honey. What is it?”
She shuddered against me, then sat up and sighed, pointing to the box. “It’s from Sky. And I’m too scared to open it.”
My throat almost closed. “What? When did it arrive?” I balanced the heavy carton on my knees. Battered and stained, it looked to have been around the world and back. Callie’s name and address were printed neatly on a label. There was no return address, but its postmark was no more exotic than Speculator, New York.
“It arrived this morning.”
I started to tear the packing tape off the box, then stopped and looked at Callie’s devastated face. “Wait a minute. How can you know it’s from Sky?”
Callie looked down at her delicate hands. She whispered so softly I barely heard her. “I got a phone call last night. After midnight.”
My heart beat faster and my hands grew clammy. “From Sky?”
Could he still be alive?
She shook her head, cascading loose locks over her cheeks. “No.”
Frustration welled inside me. “Then who called you?”
“He didn’t say. Or if he did, I couldn’t tell. The connection was bad. It was someone who knew him. Knows him.” She sobbed. “I’m not even sure if he’s still alive, Marcie. But the guy said Sky wanted me to have this. Whatever the hell it is.”
I wanted to shake her, but I knew it wouldn’t help shed any more light on Sky’s eighteen-year disappearance. If she knew anything, she would have told me. I ripped into the box and tore at the ragged foam that surrounded an olive green knapsack. I stared at familiar peace symbol buttons and the patches I’d sewn onto the bag for Sky when we were teens. “Oh my God. This is the same bag he had in high school.”
She reached for it and held it to her, rubbing her face against it as if it were Sky’s hand.
A strong scent rose from the bag. It was pungent, yet sweet. Strong, yet enticing. I gently disentangled Callie’s fingers from the strap and unbuckled it. The scent grew stronger. Peppermint? Lavender? And something that reminded me of the ceremonies in a Catholic church.
Callie’s big eyes grew wider. “What is that smell?”
I pulled out a dark maroon zippered case. Lumpy and heavy, the fabric was blotted with stains. “Let’s see.” I unzipped it and flipped back the top. Inside were nestled dozens of brown glass bottles with colorful labels. I picked up the first.
“White Angelica.” Unscrewing the cap, I sniffed it. “Wow. What is this?”
I held it to Callie’s nose. “Nice, huh?”
She frowned. “Yeah. It’s beautiful. Is it perfume?”
“I don’t think so.” I rubbed my fingers over the bottles, turning them up to read the labels. “Wintergreen. Balsam fir. Lemon. Frankincense. Lavender. Thieves. Inner Child.” I opened the balsam fir and smelled it. “Wow. Strong. It really smells like the tree.”
“What’s it say on the label? And why would Sky send me these?”
“Good question.” I grabbed my reading glasses from the coffee table and brought one of the bottles to the window to read the fine print. “Young Living Essential Oils.” I rotated the bottle. “One hundred percent peppermint oil.” I almost forgot about Sky for a moment, so intrigued with the collection of exotic smells. “Cool.
“What are they for?” Callie asked. As if Sky had sent her a box of chocolates, she started opening and sniffing each one. The air filled with heady aromas. “Mmm. This one is beautiful.”
“Let me try.” I reached for the bottle marked Valor and inhaled deeply. “Wow.” Turning it in the light again, I read the ingredients. “Spruce, rosewood, blue tansy, and frankincense. Frankincense? Man. That’s what one of the wise men brought Baby Jesus, right? I didn’t know it was real.”
“Me, neither.” Callie’s eyes shone. “Marcie. Sky wanted me to have these.” She took both my hands in hers as if I’d know the answer. “But, why?”
With my heart pounding, I set the box of oils aside and dug deeper into the backpack. “I don’t know. But let’s see what else is in here. Maybe we’ll find some answers.”