Who would have thought Lucas Guarrad, of all people, would be looking forward to a toddler’s birthday party? Not anyone down at LAPD headquarters, that’s for sure.
With a blue tank engine secured under one arm, a yellow stuffed bear pressed against his chest, and a grin edging his mouth, Luke stepped from his black sixty‑seven Thunderbird onto the curbed lawn. He would have spent more on little Nicky, but he’d been asked correction … ordered, to keep the cost in a reasonable range.
Well, so much for seats on the fifty‑yard line at the Super Bowl.
Luke glanced up and, through the picture window of his partner’s enormous fixer-upper, he spied the birthday boy as the two-year-old popped above the high‑backed couch. It took only a moment before Nicky spotted him. A luminous smile spread across the child’s cherubic face.
The excited toddler made a trampoline of the cushions and waved his chubby arms. Luke could almost hear the tyke give his usual greeting, “Unka Ouke. Unka Ouke!” Then the little guy jumped down from the sofa.
Chuckling, Luke’s grin widened. It felt good to be wanted. Real good. He loved the boy and his five‑year‑old sister, Rachael, as if they were his own. They made him, a professed bachelor, think about the possibility that a cop could have it all … career, spouse, and children.
A real family life.
Somehow, against all odds, his partner, Detective Nicholas McCammon, made it work. A feat Luke swore a policeman could never do.
The outside light flicked on, and Nick stepped onto the porch. He smiled. “You’re late.”
“Only by thirty‑seven minutes and….” Pushing the car door shut with the heel of his Wellington boot, he made a great production of raising his arm to look at his watch. “Fifteen seconds. I couldn’t decide on the tank engine, or … the stuffed toy.” He nodded to each in turn.
“So, you got both.”
Luke shrugged. “What can I say?”
McCammon shook his head. “Party’s out in the gazebo. Justine’s setting it….”
Glancing at his feet, he paused and picked up what appeared to be a small piece of paper. Brow puckered, he held it up to the light. All at once he staggered back a step and jerked his attention to the opened garage. A wrapped, glossy blue present sat on his gas heater. A visible shudder passed through his now rigid body.
Just as he turned his horror‑stricken expression to Luke, an abrupt explosion reverberated through the air. The blast torpedoed Nick off the stoop as if his body were made of so many goose feathers.
Stunned, Luke froze in place. His heart stopped. His mind blanked out, and his blood turned to ice.
In shocked disbelief, he took a stumbling gait forward, a cry escaping his constricted throat. The bomb ignited the living room curtains, growing, consuming.
Justine. Rachael. Little Nicholas.
Did they make it to the gazebo? Or were they still inside?
With a guttural scream, Luke dropped the presents and bolted toward the house. He refused to admit it was already too late.
The gas pipes detonated. In the next instant, subsequent explosions worked their way through the home. Like deadly dominoes, a wave of air pressure crumpled the ranch‑style structure as if it were fashioned from graham crackers.
Glass splintered from window frames. Smoke billowed from the foundation. Fire spurted into the pewter sky. Blinding light chased away shadows hovering around the tops of nearby palm trees. Resembling a colony of ravenous termites, flames ate at the wood frame. The roaring noises had to be there.
But Luke couldn’t hear them. Instead, a deafening quiet rang in his ears.
Jetted debris knocked him flat on his back. The impact punched the air from his lungs. Fighting for oxygen, he covered his face with his arms and rolled onto his stomach. He knew shrapnel struck him, although, like the thunderous clamor, shock sedated any pain.
Warm blood ran from his brow and trickled down the side of his nose. It dripped onto his eyelid, and he scrubbed his face against his shirt sleeve.
He scanned the yard for Nick, barely making out the man’s inert form among the rubble. Digging his fingernails into the sandy earth, he dragged himself over to his friend and managed to pull himself to his knees.
“Nick? Nick, can you hear me?”
Luke placed the pads of two fingers at the side of the man’s burned neck, trying to find a heartbeat. It was faint, but there. He positioned an ear to his mouth and a hand on his chest.
With his pulse throbbing in his temples, he tilted Nick’s chin, pinched the man’s nose and, with his mouth over Nick’s, administered two slow breaths. He watched his chest rise and fall. Again, he checked for any sign of breathing.
“McCammon, don’t cut out on me now.”
Over and over Luke gently blew air into Nick’s lungs, while silently vowing to never give up. He rechecked for a heartbeat and drew strength in finding a steady thump.
Yet the man would not breathe on his own.
“Come on … come on! You can’t….” He choked on the words.
For the third sequence, he breathed for his friend. All of a sudden, Nick gasped. He drew in a shuddering breath … then another.
Relief washed over Luke. Salty tears stung the gashes on his face. Grasping his partner’s lacerated hand, he found the paper Nick had been examining moments before the first explosion.
Luke didn’t have to look at it to know what it was. Shaking, he withdrew the business card and stared transfixed at a glossy insignia.
In gradual succession, he became conscious of shouts from somewhere down the street, a siren howling in the distance, and a relay of barking dogs. Pain crawled into his being, consumed his mind. But it failed to match the burning ache in his heart. A gathering blackness tunneled his vision.
As he caught the flash of the blue engine and the yellow bear heaped by the bumper of his car, he slumped over Nick’s body; the card clenched in his fist.
St. Louis, April 1865
The strong odor of liquor, charred wood, and the stench of burnt flesh curled Falisha Harrington’s lip. The noxious smells crowded inside her nostrils and stuck to her throat, leaving a rancid taste. Heat diffused from the cobblestone street and brick buildings, generating a sense of suffocation. Puddles, formed during the water brigade, vaporized into an ethereal mist. The constant yapping of a dog droned in her ears, followed by a sharp command, a sudden yelp, then silence. A glowing ember stung her bare hand, and she brushed it away.
Lisha had assisted her uncle several times, but not in the capacity the doctor now expected. She reined the mare to a halt and jumped from the buggy, praying with all her heart that she would be able to handle the responsibility.
Her nerves on edge, she smoothed the coil of her braid. Serving as a substitute nurse was not the only worry that plagued her. She scanned the crowd milling about the saloon’s smoking ruins, straining for a glimpse of her father. Apprehension knotted her stomach. Although it wasn’t the finest bar in St. Louis, the Lucky Lady had been his favorite drinking spot. She prayed he hadn’t been inside when the fire had roared to life.
Someone cried out in pain, and Lisha’s attention riveted on the robust form of her uncle, kneeling over a young man writhing in agony. She gathered her skirts and hurried over, splashing muddy water onto her high-topped boots and black stockings.
”Uncle John, what happened?”
Dr. John Calder rubbed a sleeve across his sooty face, then motioned to the man at his feet. ”It seems this young fellow voiced his thoughts about President Lincoln’s murder. He said the only mistake Booth made was not doing it sooner. You know what kind of fervor that would cause. You can see the results.”
“Are there many injured?”
“Enough to keep us busy for a couple of hours,” he said,
rising to his feet.
“Uncle John” —her voice faltered— “have you seen Papa?”
Dr. Calder rocked back on his heels, centering the bulk of his weight. Dabbing at his receding hairline, he studied his favorite niece. She was so much like her mother in appearance with her silvery-blonde hair and blue-gray eyes-yet so different when it came to inner strength. Too many times Lisha acted on impulse, while Brooke never acted at all.
“No, Lisha, as far as I can see, Edward’s not here.” John
Calder heard her sigh of relief and grimaced his annoyance
“There’s no time to dwell on your father. I need your full attention here.”
With help they managed to get the wounded inside a nearby restaurant, where they laid them on tables. At the bark of Dr. Calder’s command, a boy scurried from the room and returned minutes later carrying a crate filled with first-aid supplies, including four bottles of whiskey.
The doctor sorted out a few items, placing them at each table. To the volunteers, he explained how to treat the minor wounds. That done, he motioned Lisha over to where the young man lay half-conscious.
“His thigh’s cut pretty bad,” her uncle said, rummaging through his black bag. “I’ve given him a good dose of laudanum to ease the pain. I need your help to cut away his clothes and clean the wound.”
Lisha stared at the man’s blood-soaked trousers. The bright red edged into a muddy brown. Panic swelled, threatening to take over. She felt a light touch on her arm. Turning, she looked into the understanding eyes of her uncle.
“I wouldn’t ask it of you,” he said, his voice grave “if I didn’t think you could handle it.”
His trustful gaze gave Lisha courage. She arranged atop the table scissors, needles, and horse hair needed for suturing.
With scissors in hand she began to cut away the trousers, then hesitated. She’d never seen a man’s bare leg before, even when helping her uncle with his patients. Just the sight of a man’s chest took getting used to. How, in all that’s decent, could she lay bare a stranger’s thigh?
A tormented groan escaped the young man’s throat. Lisha knew his well-being weighed more importantly than her inbred sense of modesty. Taking a deep breath, she cut away the rest of the blood-caked fabric.
A warm tide crept up her neck and face. She lowered her head, hoping no one would notice. While her uncle applied pressure to the laceration, she prepared the needles and horse hair. Under his curt instructions, and her own misgivings, she lit a candle and held a knife to the blue flame.
Her uncle poured whiskey on the wound. The man struggled, screaming in pain, and Lisha tried to pinion his legs with her body. Uncle John picked up the white-hot knife and began to cauterize the gash. Lisha averted her head. The young man’s body shuddered from the burning pain, then fell limp.
Rancid fumes clogged Lisha’s throat. The scorched flesh made her ill. She fought to keep from vomiting. Again and again her uncle applied the blistering steel to the open wound until she was sure she would faint. None too soon, he laid the blade aside.
“I’m going to make a nurse of you yet, girl. In fact, I’ll let you finish.”
“You mean sew him up?” Lisha squeaked out.
“You can do it. You’ve watched me plenty of times.” With that he turned his attention to another patient.
Uneasy, she took the needle and knotted her first suture. Struggling to keep her nausea down, she stitched her second and her third. By the time she bandaged the patient’s thigh, he had regained full consciousness, and she instructed some men to help get him home.
One by one the wounded received the care they needed and were then sent home. Soon, the only evidence of the night’s work showed in the bloody clutter left by makeshift doctors and the nagging ache across Lisha’s shoulders. She rolled her sleeves down, frowning at the striped design created by the folds of material exposed to the soot.
“Now,” her uncle said, giving her an exhausted glance, “I’m going to prescribe a good night’s sleep, what’s left of it, for the both of us. Do you hear? I want you to follow doctor’s orders.”
“I will, Uncle John, but first I have to—”
“Find your father?”
She looked away from his steady gaze.
“You know, Lisha, you can’t coddle him out of his habits any more than your mother could.”
“I know, but since Mama died, Papa has changed. He seems so … lost.”
Lost in his cups, John Calder wanted to say, but he couldn’t upset his niece any further. He studied her smudged face, noting the pinched skin around her nostrils and the worry clouding her large eyes.
”I’m sure Edward is somewhere sleeping it off. He’ll be home come morning.”
“You’re right, Uncle John. It’s just that this time I have a feeling something is wrong.”
Her uncle rubbed a veined hand across his mouth and stubbled chin. “Lisha, don’t worry—”
“Uncle John, you know these premonitions come to me, and most of the time they tum out to be true. I sense that something is terribly wrong with Papa. I can feel it.”
“Lisha, if you’re apprehensive, it’s because of tonight’s fire, and because Edward visited the Luck Lady more than any other place. Yes, you do have a form of second sight. Lord knows I can’t dispute that, but I know too well that you also have a dramatic nature with a highly active imagination. Take my advice, go home and get some rest.”
Lisha knew the futility of trying to make her uncle understand her fears. Where her father was concerned, John Calder stuck to his opposing attitude, like a hatchling to its nest, feeding it with negative gossip about Edward Harrington. She knew her father and his weaknesses, but she had also felt his love and intense pride in her.
“All right, Uncle John.” Lisha smiled and gave him a quick hug. “You win. I promise to be in bed as soon as I can.”
“Make sure you do, young lady.”
Lisha picked her way around the smoking rubble and climbed into her buggy, reassuring herself that she hadn’t lied to her uncle. Not really. She did intend to get some sleep—just as soon as she made one more stop.
The clip of the mare’s hooves on cobblestone echoed in the stillness. The gas street lamps lit Lisha’s way. Not a person could be seen, and she guessed it was sometime after midnight. The cool night air sent a chill down her spine, and she gripped her cape tighter about her shoulders.
When she pulled alongside her lawyer’s office,
Lisha reined in the mare. Gathering her soot-smudged skirts, she hurried up the steps and rapped on the door. She waited, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, and knocked again. As she had driven up, she’d seen a faint light in the back, and she hoped Weston Clayborne might be in. She prepared to knock a third time when she heard the opening of a door, hushed voices, and then footsteps.
Someone, holding a lantern, walked to the front of the office while a soft light danced in the windows. A key jangled the lock, and the door swung open. Light spilled out onto the boardwalk, casting Lisha in its glow.
“Falisha, what on earth are you doing out at this time of night and alone? And why are you covered in soot?”
Lisha gazed up at the dark shadow created by the kerosene lamp. She warmed at the concern in Weston’s voice. “The Lucky Lady burned down. I’ve been helping Uncle John, but now I’m looking for Papa. Have you seen him?”
“Not since dinnertime. He was with his friend, Forister. I wouldn’t worry. He’ll be all right.”
“I hope so.”
“It’s not proper for a young lady to be out alone this time of night. I can’t understand what must be on your uncle’s mind to let you go about unescorted. Give me a moment. I’m going to see you home.”
“Please don’t bother. The boardinghouse isn’t far.”
“No, I insist. I’ll be just a moment.”
Fort Dodge, Kansas
Mute with fear, Michelle gripped the music box to her chest. Soot smudged her arms. A lock of hair had fallen over her eye. Her transfixed gaze failed to focus on anything in the captain’s quarters save the two officers’ wives sorting through her few belongings. One woman reminded Michelle of her rag doll, Gretel. The other made her think of Buttercup, her grandpa’s milk cow.
“Poor dear,” “Gretel” murmured, “and her being so young to lose her family.”
“It’ll be her age that’ll help her through this. I’ve seen it before.”
“How old do you think she is?”
“Not much more than three, I suspect.”
“Look at her, Constance, she just stands there, not moving, not talking.”
Daddy says I’m his brave little girl. But I’m not.
“Would you be acting normal if you were her?” “Buttercup” shook a fly off a crumpled night-gown and laid the garment beside clean underclothing. “You have to get used to things like that out here in this godless land, Amelia. If you don’t, you won’t last the year.”
Gretel poured hot water from a pitcher into a basin. “Is it true, Constance, did the scouting party really find her in a covered wagon, hiding under a quilt?”
No, sweetheart, mustn’t move. Remember our game? You lie very still and see how long you can go without making a sound.
“Hiding and clutching that music box. Her mother probably hoped the Comanches wouldn’t find her.” Buttercup gave a disgusted sigh and tossed another knife-slashed blanket onto a growing pile of mending.
“If her mother’d had her hidden well enough, the Indians wouldn’t have found her, would they?”
“From the looks of this mess those savages would have stumbled across her sooner or later. At least we can be thankful the men stopped them from torching her wagon.” Buttercup threw what had once been a beautiful shawl into a trash barrel. “I can’t understand some of these people coming out West in small trains. Don’t they realize there’s safety in numbers?”
“Hush, Constance, you’ll disturb the child.”
“I’m afraid she’s far from understanding anything. Heaven knows she needs that protection right now.”
Gretel set the basin on a little table. Michelle felt herself guided toward the bed. The woman gently raised her chin. “My, but isn’t she an angelic little soul! Such glorious black hair. Oh, and look at those eyes. Have you ever seen such large gray eyes? Or are they green? No matter, she’s going to be a real beauty whatever their color.”
Buttercup straightened her back. “Beauty or no won’t stop the nightmares.”
“Does she have family? Somewhere to go?”
“Don’t be getting any mothering ideas, Amelia. The captain found letters from an aunt of hers who lives in San Francisco. He’ll send her out on the next wagon train coming through.”
Gretel began to unbutton the soiled dress. Michelle shied away, grasping tighter to her music box. “It’s all right, sweetheart, I just want to take those dirty clothes off you and give you a bath.”
Michelle refused to move. Buttercup scooped up the pile of washing. “That music box must mean an awful lot to her.”
“I wonder why?”
If you do exactly what Mommy says, and keep still, you may keep the music box in your new room.
“Maybe it was her mother’s.”
“It is exquisite. It must be an heirloom.”
“Whether it is or not, it’s obviously priceless to her.” Buttercup hefted the laundry to get a better grasp and lumbered out the door.
“Honey, can we listen to your music box?” A key projected from underneath the base, and Gretel turned it. Tiny figures whirled and bobbed in time with a tinkling aria.
Michelle relaxed. The woman lifted her up, sat her at the edge of the bed, and rolled down her dirty stockings. All the while she talked in soothing tones. Michelle felt her eyelids droop. As long as she could keep a hand on her music box, she permitted herself to be undressed.
Working the washcloth in warm sudsy water, the woman bathed her, then gingerly dried her with a piece of toweling. Smiling, Gretel pulled a nightgown over her head and brushed the snarls from her hair. A softness came to Gretel’s face, making the woman look more like Michelle’s doll.
Gretel carefully tucked her into bed. She felt the woman’s soft hand on her cheek. “I can imagine your mother’s heartbreak,” she whispered. “I can understand her panic.”
The music wound down.
Darling, play the music box every time you feel lonely or afraid, and always remember that I am near.
Michelle turned the key. Again the elegant figures danced.
Slowly she relaxed her grip.