The child is not; and I, wither shall I go?
–Genesis 37:30 (kjv)
Seagrove Village, Florida
It was an ordinary day. Bad things aren’t supposed to
happen on ordinary days. Only normal things.
Annie Harper looked at her reflection in the entryway
mirror. Her hair was a wreck. The dark circles under her
eyes looked as if they’d been drawn on with markers and then
smudged. And her nails were a disgrace. Haggard and beaten
down. That’s how she looked. And she felt worse.
"There should be universal rules about this," she told
her reflection. "When a woman is body slammed, she can only
take so much without breaking under the pressure."
Gathering a full head of steam, she frowned and jabbed
her finger in the air. "Life should go easy on you then."
That would be humane. Civil. "And if bad things have to
happen, there should be warning signs so there’s time to
brace and prepare for them."
She dipped her chin and glared into her own eyes.
"Especially if it’s too horrific to wrap your mind
around—and it happens not to you, but to someone you love."
Pain shot through her heart, leaving her chest hollow
and empty. "But there aren’t any rules and there weren’t any
signs." She shifted her gaze to the ceiling. "Why, God? Why
didn’t You send me at least one bad feeling? An intuitive
flash? Couldn’t You spare me even one piddling stomach
flutter?" Tears stung her eyes. "I’ve been loyal, obedient.
Why didn’t I get something?"
No edgy nerves. No hitch in her chest. No whispered
warning in her mind like, Annie Harper, you listen to me,
woman. Trouble’s coming. Summon your faith and gird your
loins because every mother’s worst fear is about to knock on
Fisting her hand, she rested it on the gleaming wooden
table beneath the mirror. But did You? No.
She glared at the vase of freshly cut white roses. The
scent was heavy, cloying. "Women’s intuition?" She picked up
a bud, plucked a petal, and dropped it onto the spotless
marble floor. "Failed."
Tore off another petal. "Mother’s intuition?" Tossed it
Jerked at another petal. "God?" Thrust it. "Failed."
Her breath caught in her throat. "Everything failed."
She reached for more petals, but she had stripped the
rose bare. All that remained was its stem and thorns.
Outrage and agony ripped from her soul. Oh, I resent
this and I wish I had someone to blame. But You didn’t even
give me that. Why?
She staggered into the living room and collapsed on the
sofa, curling her knees to her chest to keep the pain
bottled up inside. If she let it loose, she’d never recover
and there was nowhere to dump it.
It was just an ordinary day.
"Take me back," she cried out, her face tear soaked.
Cradling herself, she rocked back and forth, seeking comfort
where there was none. "Just twenty-four hours. Please, take
"Annie?" Miranda Kent came in from the kitchen, clipping
an earring back onto her lobe. Not a strand of her auburn
hair was out of place. Loose curls framed her face. Her
nails, like the rest of her, were perfect.
She snagged a tissue and passed it to Annie. "I’ve put
on a pot of coffee. The church ladies were meeting at the
club, but I told Nora about Charles. She said they would be
here in a flash."
Annie nodded, pretending to care. She wanted two people
in her house. Two. And neither of them would be coming.
"Charles and I were at the club night before last."
She and her beloved husband had dinner with the mayor
and forty or so close friends at Somerset House on the Bay.
They feasted on salad with baby artichoke hearts and spears
of cucumber, then ate honeyed baby carrots and blackened
grouper caught fresh that morning in the Gulf of Mexico.
Grouper was Charles’s favorite. She swallowed hard. They’d
never dine there again.
"We were with you, remember?" Miranda clutched her flat
stomach. "I know better than to eat a heavy meal that late.
I was up all night."
Annie and Charles had slept like rocks. Then they’d
gotten up, eaten breakfast, and Lisa and he had been on
Miranda sat beside Annie and crossed her legs at the
ankles. "Is Lisa seven or eight now? I can’t remember. After
thirty, the years tend to run together."
"Seven." Annie’s voice cracked. Lisa was bright and
beautiful inside and out—at times all sweetness and
innocence, and at others wise beyond her years.
"She told me she wanted to be a doctor like her dad. We
were at Nora’s birthday party, I think."
Pain twisted in Annie like hot wires coiled tight. "It’s
what she’s always wanted." Lisa idolized her father. "She
has a stronger stomach for medical procedures than I do, and
she never complains about Charles’s long hours at the office
and hospital." Annie sniffed and dabbed at her eyes. "His
practice takes him away from us so much, but Lisa always
defends him." Oh, how Annie wished he were at the office
now. That Lisa were here with her.
"They left early yesterday, didn’t they?"
Annie didn’t answer.
"Annie? They left early yesterday, right?"
"If this shows up in the Village Log, I’m going to cut
off your fingers, Miranda."
"Not a word without your express permission." She
crossed her heart.
Annie believed her. "Yesterday. At the crack of dawn."
Seagrove Village was up in the Florida panhandle, and
getting down to Orlando for a trip to Disney World would
take a solid eight hours. "Charles wanted to beat the
tourist traffic." She’d been so proud of him for finally
taking a break from work to spend some quality time with
Lisa. Charles was brilliant and committed to his patients,
but he rarely took time off.
"Highway 98 is a nightmare during the season." Miranda
shifted on the white sofa. "I’m sure Lisa was excited."
She was their only child, their miracle baby. "Beyond
"Why didn’t you go with them?"
"It’s my month to chair the charity function. I couldn’t
beg off, and rescheduling would have been a nightmare for
Charles’s staff and patients." Now she wished she had gone.
That she hadn’t, she’d regret forever.
"Just as well." Miranda stood. "If Charles is anything
like my Paul and you’d been there, he would have spent the
entire week on the phone with his office." She walked to the
Dishes clanged in the distance, and Annie resented the
racket almost as much as she resented Miranda being right.
Charles would have used Annie as a buffer, and Lisa didn’t
need him just being in the same room; she got enough of that
Miranda returned with a tea tray and the puzzle from The
New York Times. "I saw this on the counter and thought you
might want a diversion."
"I don’t work the puzzles. I saved it for Lisa. She
loves them." Annie took a cup and saucer Miranda extended to
her. "From the cradle, she couldn’t resist a mystery of any
sort." She was good at solving them too.
"Obviously that’s from Charles’s side of the family."
Annie nodded. "They want to know and fix everything." If
they could fix this, Annie would never complain about that
But they couldn’t. God help her, no one could.
Miranda poured tea into her own cup. Steam lifted from
it. "Interesting family dynamic. The Harpers are into
everything and you avoid everything."
"I don’t." Annie took exception. "I face what I have to
face to survive."
"Exactly." Miranda waved. "You only worry after you’ve
prayed and done all you can do. I’ve always admired that
Annie didn’t want or need admiration. She wanted and
needed her family.
She stared through the sheers out to the lawn. It was a
glorious summer day, much like yesterday when Miranda
andAnnie had skipped the fashion show and played nine holes
of golf. The club’s courses were the best in northwest
Florida, and Miranda’s game was far better, but then it
should be. Annie dabbled. Miranda hit the links nearly every
The doorbell rang.
"I’ll get it." Miranda set down her cup and got to her
feet. "You just relax. Shall I bring the church ladies in here?"
"Yes." Annie stood. "I’m going to my room for a few
minutes to compose myself."
Miranda nodded. "Good idea." Pity shone in her eyes.
"I’ll keep them busy until you’re ready to see them."
Annie walked through to the master suite, shut the door,
and then slung herself across her bed. If this were
yesterday, she’d be in the hammock out back facing the cove,
enjoying the salt-tanged breeze, lost in a good book. Even
as night had fallen and the clock inched toward eight, she
hadn’t been antsy.
Lisa had promised to phone every night at eight for a
virtual tuck in. She’d outgrown it but indulged Annie
because it was her favorite daily ritual, not that Annie
ever dwelled on how much it meant to her. She learned early
in life not to want or need anything too much. That could
make you do crazy things. But the truth was, it was just too
scary—the risks of wanting those things and not getting
them. She’d worked hard on that, but life lessons instilled
young were as hard to break as bad habits.
Was that just another latent gift of being orphaned and
raised by a series of foster parents? Maybe so. Two were
good people, but more than two should have been in jail. Yet
more likely, she avoided those risks because until she’d
married Charles, she had to claw her way through her whole
life just to survive.
She scrunched her pillow and wadded it under her ear.
The lavender smell reminded her of the roses. She tossed the
pillow aside and tugged over Charles’s. His scent clung to
the pillowcase. Gripping wads of the fine linen in both
hands, she held on tight and buried her nose deep.
Yesterday, those early days had faded from her life.
Yesterday, she had a good husband, an amazing daughter,
a beautiful home in the village, and more stuff than anyone
could want much less need.
Yet even then, the fear of being hungry never went away.
She could tell herself anything, go through all the therapy
in the world, but down deep she still feared being hungry again.
Annie always had kept money stashed away for a rainy
day. At least, she had until a month ago. Lisa came home
from Sunday school and said an orphanage in Haiti needed a
roof to get the kids out of the rain.
Images of those children soaked to the skin burned in
Annie’s mind now as they had then. She hadn’t slept a wink.
It’d been a fierce battle, but on the third day, she
forfeited her stash. She wasn’t hungry and the kids were
suffering. They needed to get dry.
Charles was indulgent and Lisa was ecstatic, lavish with
grateful butterfly kisses and twinkling sparkles in her
dancing blue eyes. She had no idea Annie had virtually been
on her knees ever since, praying she hadn’t set herself up
"Take me back twenty-four hours," she mumbled into the
pillow. "Let me live them just once more." She wept openly,
begged without shame. "Just once more."
The picture formed vividly in her mind. Twenty-four
hours ago she had walked down the tiled east wing to Lisa’s
room. Rex, her two-year-old yellow lab, lay parked right in
the middle of her canopied bed. He seemed so sad that Annie
lacked the heart to fuss at him. "You miss her too, eh, boy?"
Rex wagged his tail. She crawled up beside him and
scratched his ears. Without Charles and Lisa, the house was
far too big and empty. Rex felt it too. His bottom line was
that he wanted Lisa and Annie in the same space. Anything
less and he just wasn’t happy. Truthfully, neither was she.
At straight-up eight, the phone rang. Rex barked and
Annie snagged the receiver. "Hello."
Lisa. "Hi, darling." Annie smiled. "Did you make it down
"We’re not in Orlando. We went to Disney, but Daddy
messed up the hotel reservation. He made it for tomorrow,
"Oh no." She should have double-checked that. Charles
was lousy with the mundane. One of the quirks Annie adored
about him. "So where are you guys?"
"In a motel by a big hat. It’s loud here, but the resort
man couldn’t find us anywhere to stay, so we drove around
until Daddy found this place."
July Fourth weekend. Not an easy task to find a room
with all the tourists in town for the holiday. An incredible
amount of racket in the background hurt Annie’s ear. She
pulled the receiver away. "Where is Daddy, darling?"
"In the shower. Scrubbing off road grime."
Rex pawed at her thigh, nudging her to keep scratching
his scruff. "So you guys are settling in for the night, eh?"
"Yes, but Daddy isn’t happy about the music."
"Oh, that’s not the TV?" Annie sank back against the
pillows and scratched Rex’s ears. The dog was nearly as
spoiled as Lisa.
Annie frowned. "So what’s making all the noise?"
"There’s a place across the street that’s got an orchestra."
A band. Hard rock, from the sounds of it. Charles would
definitely hate that. Annie grinned. "Why do you sound winded?"
"Oh, that man’s back, knocking on the door again." Lisa
sounded more annoyed than scared. "Mom, he’s got a spiderweb
drawn on his hand."
Wait. The man was back? Alarmed, Annie sat straight up.
"Lisa, do not open that door." She tried to keep panic out
of her voice, but her throat was clenched-fist,
white-knuckle tight. "Go get Daddy, darling."
"Just a second. The man is saying something to me
through the window."
"What?" Rex perked his ears, lifted his head from her
lap—a terrible sign. "What’s he saying?" Was there a fire in
the building or something?
"‘It’s time for you to become a shrub.’" Lisa sounded
baffled. "What does that mean?"
Become a shrub? Definitely a nut case. Whatever was
going on sounded bad and felt worse. "Go get your dad. Do it
right now, Lisa Marie!"
A loud crackle ripped through the phone. Something
cracked. Splintered. Scuffled. Shattered.
"Lisa!" Annie jumped out of bed. Growling and baring his
teeth, Rex barked. "Lisa, answer me. Lisa!"
The line went dead.
Annie’s blood ran cold.
Yesterday was no longer an ordinary day.