Prologue

Grapefruit in various stages of rot covered the ground. They caused his boots to slide as he ran and sent him to his knees. The sweet smell of decaying fruit mixed with the scent of damp earth and desert air, and he gagged each time he fell facedown into the putrid mess. But he got up each time and continued to plunge through the forest of citrus trees while branches tore at his clothes and he waved his pistol above his head. He dodged among trees, leapt over gnarled roots, and crawled through irrigation channels. All the while he sobbed, muttered curses, and glanced back from where hed come.

But she hadnt followed him.

The farther he ventured into the grove, however, the rotting fruit on the ground only grew thicker, for thered been no one to pick the harvest that season or the last. When he fell again, dropping his pistol then fumbling to retrieve it, he finally gave up running and hugged his knees and wept. A full moon shone high in the sky, but he was entombed and hidden among the trees. He might be safe from her. Perhaps shed yet to find a way to venture past the house.

As he began to regain his composure, a campfire sparked to life in front of him. The family gathered in a semicircle with their faces hidden in the shadows, only their soiled clothes and bodies visible.

He howled and waved his pistol. Fuck you! Fuck all you goddamn spics to hell.

An old woman in a faded red skirt stepped away from the family toward him. The mantle of her black shawl around her head hid her face.

He stared at her and swallowed. This is my land, my trees, my fruit.

She pulled a ripe grapefruit from a low-hanging branch and held it out to him. Sí, jefe. The fruit, she is all yours. She split it open between her arthritic hands and held out the two pieces. They dripped with blood and maggots. But vengeance, señor, is ours. Nuestra venganza.

As the others began to chant, Venganza, venganza, venganza, the old womans shawl fell away and revealed the face of Death.

He tore at his ears, screamed, and brought his pistol under his chin. For one beat he glared into her empty eye sockets before grimacing and pulling the trigger.

 

v

 

At the upstairs window, she looked across the dark grove. The flame from the oil lamp she held in her hand sputtered, casting the shadow of her long black hair against the gravel drive below. Shed seen the campfire in the distance, heard the gunshot, and watched as the firelight winked out once again. Trapped here in the house, she couldnt reach her family, but at least he was dead. It was a start. Perhaps now the others would listen to her and help her find her son and end this nightmare. And if they would not listen, she would make them pay as well.

She would have her revenge.


Chapter One

Numbers in black-and-white print lay aligned in a list next to a shaded pie chart showing the various investments and their proportions to the total amount. It was an amount Brenna couldnt comprehend, all those zeros, abstract and empty. She was wealthy, incredibly and obscenely wealthy, but there was no joy for her in this revelation.

I had no idea Edward had invested this much. She looked at the paperwork on the desk.

Take some comfort in the fact hed always intended to provide for you and Michael, said Stan Thomas, the family lawyer.

She pushed the documents away. Yes, for Michael.

And you.

She squirmed, knowing she didnt deserve her late husbands accumulated wealth. She glanced at Thomas and saw the pity in his eyes, the uncomfortable smile. She understood how hard it was for people to know what to say to her even these many months after Edwards and Michaels deaths. And as she diverted her eyes from his sympathetic gaze, she squirmed again knowing if he knew the truth, hed think much less of her.

Thomas shifted in his chair. Brenna, as Edward Wilsons wife and widow, youre entitled to his estate. He has no other living relatives. The house, the bank accounts, the investments, and the real estate belong to you now. Realize what this means to you.

She ground her teeth together, forcing the shame, bubbling beneath her grief, to retreat.

Understand with this amount of wealth, youre free to start over, he said. You can sell the house, move out of Davenport, and travel the world. In fact, if you monitor the investments correctly, you wont have a worry for the rest of your life.

She considered this. Youre right. Ive been thinking about getting out of town. I havent been anywhere since high school when I went on my senior trip to Chicago. Leaving Davenport may be what I need. She smiled, but she knew she was faking it. It was the same phony smile shed learned to don in the last six months, two weeks, and three days. The smile put people at ease, made them think she was working through her grief, made them leave her alone. But more important, it covered the shame and rage that twisted inside her.

Im glad youre thinking of moving on, he said. I know these last months have been hell on you.

She gritted her teeth once more. She hated when people pretended to understand.

Thomas pulled a portfolio from the pile of documents on his desk. This lists all his investments, his stocks and bonds, the certificates of deposit as well as the real estate. Heres the card of his investment advisor. Id suggest you give him the go-ahead to manage all of the accounts for you and determine the particulars for a monthly income.

Brenna brought the portfolio into her lap and began flipping through the various sections. When she turned to the real estate portion, she studied each of the cover sheets for the properties Edward had purchased.

He had property in Arkansas? I guess because of his parents, she said. And Florida. Hed wanted to retire there, I know. She stopped at a page. Whats this? Poulsen Citrus Grove? Way out in Arizona?

If I recall, hed invested in some acreage out there. The speculation was the housing market would recover sooner than later, and hed hoped to sell the land to one of the large new-home contractors for three times the amount hed invested.

No kidding. She paged through that section of the portfolio scanning the photos, maps, and zoning diagrams. Edward hated the desert heat. I wonder if he even bothered to visit or invested blindly.

Yes, he went to Arizona. In fact, at least three times Im aware of. A few months before the accident, hed talked to me about finding a way to dump that particular property. I guess thereve been some issues with the original owners. Im not sure of the particulars.

She came to a picture of a two-story house with a large covered porch. Theres a home on the property?

Apparently, but I doubt its been occupied for some time.

Whys that? She examined the picture. The house, stucco and frame, resembled many of the farmhouses which dotted the Iowa countryside. It was quaint and traditional, and the second-story windows along with the covered porch reminded her of her grandparents home shed visited as a little girl. Something about it, the two blank windows over the large porch, like a face, a sad and lonely face. The house looked inviting in a strange sort of way.

Thomas came around to look over her shoulder, turned to the introductory page for the property, and slipped out a business card from the clear-plastic divider. Heres the broker Edward was working with. Give her a call, she can give you more information on the property.

Brenna took the card. I wouldnt mind taking a look at the house in person.

All the way to Arizona? I guess its a lot warmer than Davenport this time of year. It may do you some good to leave the cold and be in the sunshine for a while. He patted her shoulder.

Brenna slipped the business card back into the portfolio and said, I could use some sunshine.

 

v

 

She sat on the bed in her sisters guest room, where shed been living for the last six and a half months. Next to her, a filled suitcase lay open, waiting for the last item, which she held in her hands. It was a wooden music box with a decoupage image of a smiling sun, and it played the tune You Are My Sunshine. Shed given it to her son, Michael, when hed been a baby, and shed wound it often to play it while hed fallen asleep in her arms. When hed wake in the middle of the night from a scary dream, shed hold him and play it again, soothing him with the comforting melody. But since his death, shed kept the box by her bedside in her sisters home, never once opening it and listening to the song. She hadnt had the courage yet. She ran her thumb over the image of the sun, touched the copper dial, which wound the instrument, and finally stuffed it in the middle of her suitcase alongside a framed photo of her husband and little boy. She was about to close it and head downstairs when her sister knocked and entered the room.

Bill brought in the mail. You have a card from Debra. Look, postmarked all the way from Nairobi. Pretty stamp. Jessica held out the envelope.

You emailed her, didnt you? Told her about what happened? Brenna asked.

No, Brenna, I didnt. But Im sure someone from church did. Jessica glanced at the suitcase. Youve packed a lot in your van for only a few weeks. And now this suitcase? I dont understand. Cant you fly to Arizona and rent a car? It looks as though youre moving there, for heavens sake.

Brenna swallowed to keep her voice from coming out short and hateful. I told you, Jess. Im going to look into remodeling the house. The broker Edward worked with told me its quite old, built in 1910. It would make a nice historical restoration.

You arent planning on staying in Arizona to see about restoring the place, Jessica said.

Brenna set her jaw and glared at her.

And how long will that take?

Brenna didnt answer.

But you dont know anyone out there. Youll be alone. All alone.

Brenna swallowed again and tapped her unopened mail against her thigh. I am alone. And it was a true statement, she knew.

Jessica covered her mouth while she shook her head. When she spoke, her voice faltered. Sister, youve never been alone.

Brenna looked away.

Seeing you like this tears me up inside, Brenna. You need to talk to me. Why wont you talk to me? Jessica began to cry.

But Brenna wouldnt look at her. She doubted Jessica could handle the truth.

When you were little, Jessica said, and Mom and Dad died, and you came to live with me, I tried my best to—

Stop. Brenna pummeled the side of the bed with her fist.

Jessica took a step back.

In a softer voice, still strained, Brenna said, Ill be down in a moment to say good-bye to you and the boys.

She watched Jessica leave the room while inside she reeled with both guilt and anger. She loved her sister, was thankful when theyd lost their parents seventeen years ago, Jessica and her new husband had taken her in. She knew shed been an imposition on them. But in the last months, Jessica had become suffocating and cloying. She asked too many questions, pried into her every move. Brenna couldnt contain her irritation with her any longer, and she knew it was best she was leaving for a while.

As she debated whether she should go apologize, she fingered the scar at the base of her neck that ran up the back of her head into her hairline. It was prickling, itching, and as she touched it, she thought it felt hot. She knew it was from stress, from the constant suppression of her grief and anger, which she felt she had to maintain for her familys benefit. She wouldnt let her two nephews or her sister and brother-in-law see her fall to pieces as shed done in the weeks after the accident. But more important, she couldnt let them glimpse her inner turmoil, at the guilt she felt for Edwards and Michaels deaths. She was certain her sister would start to figure things out and realize what had happened, perhaps even discover the truth.

Brenna examined the envelope and recognized Debras handwriting, and she wondered why Debra had bothered writing her at all. Hadnt she claimed shed broken her heart? Nearly ruined her marriage? She scoffed. She knew shed ruined most everything in her life anyway. Debra was simply one more unfortunate casualty.

After tearing open the envelope, she pulled out a standard sympathy card. Inside, below the printed sentiment, Debra had written, I’m sorry for your loss. Know Allen and I will pray for you. Debra.

Brenna turned the card over. There was no other message. She ripped it in half and tossed it in the bin by the bed. There was no point in treasuring a keepsake of a failed relationship.

Downstairs, she said good-bye to her sister and brother-in-law as well as her two nephews, who hugged her and wept. She realized for them, both still young boys, her departure was confusing. Theyd struggled to come to terms with their uncle Eddies and cousin Mikeys deaths, and now they were losing their aunt to the other side of the country.

She hurried to her packed minivan and waved out the window as she drove off. By the time she hit the Iowa-Missouri state line, she took a breath of relief. Shed managed to drive hours without the compulsion to swerve her van into an oncoming semitruck and end it all. This was some improvement, she thought. And she realized she was actually looking forward to the sunshine in the Southwest desert. She knew it would never heal the loss of her little sunshine, her son Michael, but to be out of the gray and bleak Midwestern winter would be some relief. Perhaps just enough to give her the will to face another day without him.

 

v

 

Ms. Leighton, your ten oclock, Mrs. Wilson, is here, the receptionist spoke into the phone. She smiled at Brenna.

Brenna thought it was a sad smile, one that showed pity. She gathered Cassandra Leighton, Edwards property broker in Arizona, had informed her secretary that Mr. Wilsons widow would be dropping by that morning.

You can go right in, maam, the secretary said.

Brenna hesitated and fidgeted with her purse. Shed felt self-conscious about her casual dress the moment shed stepped into the large and richly furnished office in downtown Phoenix. She knew she looked awful. Shed seen her image in the mirror. Her appearance was cliché, down to the dark circles under her eyes and her limp blond hair, which she hadnt bothered to color or style since the accident. She looked every bit the grieving widow and tragic mother. All but her jawline, which often remained rigid as her teeth ground together, not to prevent herself from breaking down and weeping, as most anyone would expect from her, but rather to keep herself from screaming.

Now as she opened the door to the brokers private office, she felt even more underdressed and uncomfortable when she saw how stylish and sophisticated the woman inside appeared.

Brenna, its good to meet you in person. Cassandra Leighton extended her hand.

Thank you, Cassie, for agreeing to see me, Brenna said. She couldnt prevent herself from staring at the woman. She was a blonde, like herself, but Cassie expressed a polished beauty dressed in her expensive business suit. Her hair was impeccable, her nails manicured, and her jewelry perfectly accented her attire. She was beautiful and classy, just the type of woman Brenna always found herself timid around.

You dont look any worse for wear after your long drive. Are you comfortable at the Scottsdale Hilton? Cassie motioned for her to have a seat.

I am. Thank you for recommending it. Id have ended up at some roadside dive with my luck. Brenna settled into the leather chair, scanned the office, and noticed the many photos, plaques, and awards covering the walls. It was clear Cassie was successful in her line of work.

Not a problem, Cassie said. I want you to be comfortable while you visit us here in sunny Arizona. Let me get you some coffee. She buzzed her secretary, and in a few moments, the two were sipping their drinks and discussing Arizonas weather and the economy.

I never thought of the desert as having much to offer, Brenna said, but the golf courses, farms, and housing developments are amazing. And the citrus groves, theyre everywhere.

Citrus, cotton, copper, cattle, and climate—the five Cs Arizonas known for, Cassie said. Sadly, most of the citrus economy has shifted away from us to California and Florida, even Chile. Thats the reason many of the old citrus dynasties have been sold off and parceled out for housing developments and golf courses.

And thats what happened with this Poulsen land?

By now any misgivings Brenna had about her own casual dress had fallen away as shed continued to talk with Cassie. She decided she liked Cassies face, thought it sweet and open. In fact, there was something familiar about Cassie, something Brenna couldnt describe right then, but it put her at ease nevertheless.

The Poulsen grove was never known to be one of the bigger producers, Cassie said. If I remember correctly, they grew grapefruit, but from what I recall hearing, the family was always undergoing some sort of labor dispute or the trees werent producing. The harvest shut down about twenty years ago, and theyve never sold to developers.

And the trees? Theyre all dead?

Yes, the grove has gone fallow.

And Edward, what was he hoping to do with the land?

The property lies a good twenty miles outside the city limits, on county land, and little development has sprung up around it, Cassie said. Im sure Edward thought, as many of us did, thered be expansion out that way when the economy turned around.

I see. Brenna crossed and uncrossed her legs while she sipped her coffee. Shed yet to divulge to Cassie she intended to refurbish the house which stood on the property. Even considered living in it. So whats the legal battle my lawyer referred to?

Cassie opened a file and flipped through some papers. The family didnt want a portion of the property, including the house, sold off in the purchase. I think if I remember… She flipped again through the paperwork, went to a file cabinet, and pulled out a larger file. She unfolded a document on her desk, an aerial view of the property overlaid with a topographical grid. You can see here, the house and this area over here were portioned off from the original sale. But logistics made it difficult for the land to be surveyed and mapped for individual plots. It devalued the property around it. And the family had this large slab, a tennis court, I think it was meant to be, poured right here. She pointed to the spot. There had been some plan about eventually building a large home for one of the grandsons. Anyway, Edward and I were fighting to have those two areas included in the purchase. About three months before he passed, I was able to get the go-ahead on the house and the land around it, but not this area, not the area with the concrete slab that sits on the back acreage.

Brenna examined the map. She could see the top view of the house and next to it a smaller building. She saw another small building near the slab. What are these structures?

Cassie consulted a legend and some documents in the file and pointed to the map. Thats a detached single-car garage and thats the pump house. It covers the irrigation mechanism for the grove.

Brenna continued to study the map. So all those trees, like you said, are dead?

Cassie chuckled. Without irrigation, not much can survive our desert environment. But there may be a few thatve hung on with our little rainfall. I think I saw a few with fruit when I visited the property with Edward last year. Why do you ask?

Only curious. It seems a pity to let all those trees die, all that citrus go to waste.

Yes, it does. Cassie cocked her head. Are you thinking of trying to revive the grove? Going into the fruit-stand business? She chuckled again, but furrowed her brow all the same.

No, I was thinking of restoring the house, living in it for a while.

Living in it?

Yes.

Cassie folded the map and sat again. She took a sip of coffee and said, Thats not possible.

What do you mean? Why not? Brenna asked, surprised by Cassies sudden change in tone and posture.

Listen, Brenna. Cassie rubbed her forehead. I dont think thats a good idea. That house hasnt been lived in for the last five years, and previous to that the family had a caretaker living there. Its been boarded up and empty all this time. It needs to be bulldozed along with the other buildings and dead trees.

But its a sweet little house. Reminds me of my grandparents place in the country. Id love to restore it.

You dont want to do that. Its too far from town and besides its old. I mean really old. Cassie checked something in the file. As I told you on the phone a few weeks ago, it was built in 1910. Its ancient. You dont want to live there.

But I do, Cassie. As soon as I saw the photos in Stan Thomass office, I knew this house was what I needed.

What you needed?

Brenna clamped her mouth shut and grimaced. Cassie didnt need to know how close shed come to being done, to checking out for good. She rubbed her shoulder, tense from the long drive, and said, Before I became pregnant with Michael, Edward let me take classes at the community college. I earned a degree in interior design. Ive never gotten a chance to do anything with it. But now, I can put into practice everything I learned. The house is over a century old, a perfect candidate for restoration. I could list it as a historical building.

Its hardly on the historical circuit being so far out there.

You dont understand, Cassie, I need the distraction. It was true. She did need something to grab hold of, to keep herself from sinking any lower.

Im sorry, Brenna, but I wouldnt be comfortable with you working out there by yourself, let alone living there.

Brenna stopped herself from screaming an obscenity. She bit her tongue and forced her fake smile. Thank you for your concern, but it is my property.

Cassie opened and closed her mouth. After a long pause, she said, It is your property. Forgive me. I was only thinking of your welfare. She went to the window, her back to Brenna. If you insist on making that property your residence, even for a short time, I feel obligated to disclose some history about the place.

Like what? Brenna watched Cassies back. Is it something bad?

It depends on how much credence you give an urban legend. Cassie turned around. Theres a story about the property, but then lots of old places have stories.

You mean like a ghost story?

Yes.

I dont believe in ghosts.

Dont you at least want to know the story? Cassie asked, sitting again. Arent you curious?

Did you tell Edward the story? Brenna could feel herself becoming annoyed. Perhaps Cassie was making this up to dissuade her.

No, I didnt. There was no reason to do so. He was going to sell the land, not live on it.

Brenna tightened her jaw. Okay, whats the story?

Cassie refilled her coffee cup and sat back as if she were about to relate some long epic tale. Theres a legend about Hadley Poulsen. He was the first to live there, built the house, and homesteaded the place before Arizona became a state. Anyway the story goes, one night he went crazy, no one knows for what reason, and shot his wife, cut up her body, and buried it in the grove.

Brenna listened stone-faced, tightening her jaw even more, aggravated with Cassie for trying to spook her.

When the sheriffs posse came to arrest him, Cassie continued, they dug up her body, well, her body parts. They found every piece but her head. However, Poulsen wasnt prosecuted, didnt even spend a night in jail. The sheriff was his cousin, you see.

How long ago was this?

This wouldve been over eighty years ago.

Is that all there is to the story? It doesnt sound like much of a ghost story. Brenna could hear the irritation in her voice.

Well, the legend says because her murder was never avenged, at night her spirit wanders the grove looking for her head.

Brenna scoffed. A headless woman wanders my property at night?

Thats the tale.

Thats ridiculous, is what it is. Brenna folded her arms across her chest.

Cassie leaned forward and touched her knee. I know its a silly legend, Brenna, and Im not trying to insult your intelligence.

Uh-huh. Brenna pursed her lips and raised one eyebrow.

But the thing is theres something off about that land. Ive heard the story all my life, and when I was in high school, my friends and I used to go out there and party. You know, as part of a dare, drinking beer around a campfire, smoking cigarettes. We heard strange noises, saw strange things even then.

Brenna pulled the map closer and opened it once more. She supposed any place with a hundred-year-old history was bound to have legends attached to it. But she wasnt superstitious and neither did she believe in ghosts. Besides she hadnt driven clear across the country to be turned away.

Cassie, I know you dont want me to stay out there by myself. But understand, Im a grown woman, and Im not going to be frightened off by some lurid tale told by teenagers and old men.

Will you at least let me find you a rental in Scottsdale to stay in while you work on the place?

Brenna looked at the map once more, traced her finger over the outline of the house. She was aware Cassie was watching her and probably thinking shed lost her mind. Finally, she spoke. Ive lost everything that ever mattered to me, Cassie. Everything in the world. I know it doesnt make sense to you, but I need this house. I need the isolation, the quiet from the sirens. She closed her eyes. I still hear the sirens, and Id give anything to stop them screaming in my head. Please understand. She opened her eyes to see Cassie watching her.

All right. It is your property, as you say. Cassie reached once more and touched her knee, giving it a firm squeeze before dabbing her eyes and smiling.

Like the secretarys smile, Brenna thought, Cassies was a sad smile, one of sympathy, and it made her cringe. She knew in her heart that she didnt deserve any kindness.

At her desk, Cassie pulled out a notepad and began to write. Ill go ahead and see about having the utilities turned on. It wont be for a few weeks, so dont plan on going out there until at least the end of the month. And I better have one of my guys do an inspection, make sure theres no problem with the gas line or the electric panel. The place wasnt even wired up, I think, until the 1940s.

Thank you. Brenna managed her first genuine smile in a long time.

I wouldnt be surprised if once you see the condition of the house, youll change your mind. Cassie waved her hand over the map. And for the rest of the property? Are you planning on keeping it or do you want it surveyed, graded, and segmented for sale?

I hadnt considered that. Brenna leaned over the map. Id like to keep the land the house is on with maybe an acre or two around it. Id like to see if I could nurse a few of the trees back to life as well. For the rest, Ill probably have it prepared for sale. But I dont know anything about that. I guess Ill leave it to you, if you dont mind.

Of course. Cassie dug through her desk drawer. The first thing we need is to have it properly surveyed, as I said. Edward had been debating whether to go ahead with the trouble of having it surveyed or to simply sell it off, but if we get it plotted and mapped out, particularly for mini-mansion lots, youll have a much better chance of luring in a housing investor. She looked up from her notes. Also, the road that leads in from the highway needs to be graded right away before you even think about driving it regularly.

You have a contractor you can recommend?

I do. In fact, Ive worked with this one particular company for years on similar projects. Im good friends with the owner. Ill call tomorrow and set a time to go over the contract and to meet at the property in a few weeks. Cassie handed her a business card. Here, this is the company. I know well get a good rate, and the crews are professional.

Brenna read the card: Santana and Sons, Professional Survey and Grading Contractors, Commercial and Residential, Licensed and Bonded, Alex Santana, Owner. She glimpsed at Cassie whod begun smiling with a look she couldnt read. It was as if she had a secret she couldnt wait to share.

Is there something else? Brenna asked.

Nothing much. Cassie continued to smile. I only wanted to say that I admire you, Brenna. After what youve been through and then driving clear across the country, well, I hope youll find what youre looking for out there among those grapefruit trees. I really do.

Brenna glanced at the business card again and noted the company logo was a simple line drawing of a sun coming over mountains. I hope I do, too, she said, and she slipped the card into her purse.


Chapter Two

For the next few weeks, Cassie treated Brenna to a number of lunches and dinners at upscale local eateries. Cassie also exposed her to the posh and swank shopping district known as Old Town Scottsdale. Together they perused galleries and boutiques and admired the custom jewelry shops full of handcrafted silver and gold. Brenna had never thought much about art or jewelry, and she balked at most of the prices while wondering if people actually purchased those items. Who could afford such luxuries? Then she reminded herself she had the means to purchase any number of pieces if she wanted. Shed inherited a fortune, a fortune she didnt deserve.

But these guilt-ridden thoughts were easy for her to keep at bay as her friendship with Cassie grew. Brenna was becoming enamored with the woman, not in the obsessive way shed yearned for Debra, but in a close friendship sort of way. Shed not had many friends as a child. Her parents unexpected deaths while she was young had left her withdrawn and socially awkward. But now with Cassie, Brenna discovered someone with whom she felt comfortable, with whom she could share a laugh. And besides, Cassie talked about herself rather than questioning her constantly, as Jessica liked to do. She told Brenna about her career in real estate, her childhood and teenage years growing up in Tempe, and her partner, Kelly, a golf pro at the exclusive Phoenician Resort. Brenna wondered how Cassies partner had time to deal in high-end commercial real estate and be a golf pro at the same time. She noticed Cassie was careful not to ask too many questions about Edward and Michael. In fact, Cassie avoided the subject of Edward altogether, something Brenna was thankful for.

Her time with Cassie was offset, however, with time spent alone in her luxury hotel room. She occupied herself with looking up information on home improvement stores and warehouses. She dutifully called Jessica once a day and checked email on her laptop. She read about the native culture and scanned travel magazines to make note of the local attractions she wanted to see while she stayed in the Phoenix Metro area. On those evenings when she didnt have dinner with Cassie, shed order room service, including a bottle of wine. She knew mixing the wine with the sleep aid her doctors in Davenport had prescribed was dangerous. Her heart could stop while she slept. But it would be a blessing, she thought, a quick death for sure.

The night before she was to go meet Cassie at the property, she sat on the hotel bed and swirled the wine in her glass while she mused on thoughts of self-harm. Those thoughts had haunted her for months, and anytime she began to formulate a more detailed plan, she felt the sensation of choking and coughed, sometimes so violently she retched up mucus streaked with blood. This night was no different. She coughed and cleared her throat while downing another glass of wine until her head was so foggy all she could do was sit on the bed and hold her sons music box and weep. She wept for Edward as well although shed not been in love with him. But her guilty feelings over him paled in comparison to her absolute despair over losing her sweet boy. Conceiving Michael had been difficult. In fact, shed had a miscarriage before becoming pregnant with him. Shed put so much of herself and her dreams into the life of her son, and in one swift moment, he was torn from her. In some hidden corner of her mind, she suspected shed deserved to lose him.

Through her tears, she stroked the music box, running her thumb over the image of the smiling sun beaming down on sunflowers. She began to slur the lyrics to the iconic song. But as it always did, her voice broke, and she began to weep harder. Her physical body might have been in the Valley of the Sun, as the Phoenix Metro area was known, but her spirit was broken and hidden in the shadows of her shame.

 

v

The sign on the chain-link fence read: Poulsen Citrus Grove. Brenna pulled her minivan to the side of the highway, a short distance from the gate blocking the entrance to the property. The area was overgrown with weeds and tall grass, and up to the property fence were twisted, dead grapefruit trees in neat rows, one after the other. She tugged on the gates padlock and looked down the gravel and dirt road leading to the house. She could barely make out the second story of the structure. She glanced up and down the highway and across the road to a cotton field. In the distance she could make out another home. But Cassie was right, the property was isolated. In the few moments shed been waiting, only two vehicles had driven by. Other than the distant neighbor, the closest civilization was the gas station miles back where this highway met the main freeway.

As she waited, she surveyed the land around her. She spotted an oddly shaped mountain, red in color and looming out of the unspoiled desert. She smiled, thinking it resembled a large red breast with a prominent hardened nipple. She began to pace along the roadside and drew in a breath, taking in the scents of mesquite and sage. She understood now why so many retired folks from the Midwest wintered in this state. It was temperate, full of sunshine and wide-open land. She checked the time on her phone. Another ten minutes had passed, and Cassie should be meeting her any moment. Just then a sports car pulled alongside her.

Found it okay, I see. Cassie climbed out.

Well, again, you gave great directions, Brenna said. Its peaceful out here.

Cassie fiddled with a key ring, which held a dozen keys. Yes, it is, but it can be a bit spooky at night. There arent any streetlights, you know. She found the right key and undid the lock. There we go.

She pushed one side of the gate away from her as far as it would swing, and Brenna pushed the other side in a similar manner. They looked down the rough road leading to the house. It hadnt been graded in a long time. Deep gutters and potholes pitted the narrow lane, and evidence of water runoff made the road uneven.

Last seasons monsoons, Cassie said. These dirt roads get the worst of the runoff, especially out here. She considered both vehicles. I think you have more clearance than I do. Ill leave my car here, and well take your van in. But go slowly. I dont want you tearing out your undercarriage.

Brenna agreed, and back in her van, she maneuvered around the largest potholes.

Good thing the crew can start on Monday, Cassie said just as the house came in view. Youre not going to want to drive your van over this often.

Brenna pulled into the gravel drive in front of the porch, looked through her windshield at the structure, and killed the engine. Its small. For some reason from the pictures, I thought it was larger.

Once they were out of the van, Brenna began looking around. Off to the side of the house, the garage stood just as shed seen in the aerial photo. An abandoned bucket and ladder leaned against the building, and the small windows running along the top of the double doors were dirty and yellow, a few broken. The remnant of paint, once a brilliant sky blue on the frame siding and a clean white on the eaves and trim, was peeling and dulled from the intense desert sun. The house, painted with the same theme, was in no better condition. At the garage, Brenna pulled on the handles of the double doors, but grunted when they didnt give way.

Is there a key? She turned to see Cassie staring at the second-story windows. She followed Cassies gaze, but both windows were boarded up from the inside, some of the individual panes broken out. Cassie?

Cassie shook herself. I dont know. She studied her key ring as she came toward the garage.

When they examined the doors more closely, they saw no indication of a keyhole, a lock, or a latch.

Maybe its latched from the inside. Brenna tried tugging and pushing on the doors again.

Maybe. But how did whoever locked it get out? Cassie asked. We may have to have it pried open. You can get one of the crew next week to use a crowbar on it.

Brenna walked back toward the house and tested her weight on the porch steps. The wooden planks squeaked as she stepped. Under the covered awning to one side of the front door and below the picture window, also boarded up, were a bench and an old coffee can of sand, containing cigarette butts. Empty soda cans, beer bottles, and candy wrappers littered the area.

High school kids, Cassie said.

Looking for Hadley Poulsens headless wife, are they? Brenna giggled when Cassie harrumphed.

Around the side of the house, she found the remains of a vegetable garden, a weathered clothesline, and a wheelbarrow turned on end, rusted and decaying.

Did you say someone lived here five years ago? Brenna gazed out at the citrus grove, dark and lifeless.

Yes, a caretaker. He was a Poulsen goon, Im sure. Cassie searched for the key to open the weather-beaten front door.

Goon? Why do you say that?

Finally, Cassie located the right key and pulled open the flimsy screen, but before she unlocked the main door, she said, Im guessing you dont know much about the politics of this state, but the Poulsens are old money, old power. They hold a lot of sway in Arizona. Its almost impossible to conduct any kind of business without running into one of their grandsons or cousins or goons.

Are you telling me theyre like the Mob?

Something like that. Cassie swung open the door to the house, and the two peered inside. With the windows all boarded up, little light made its way inside from the open door.

Let me get my flashlight, Brenna said. She returned from her van with a light and beamed it inside. The entryway was empty with thick dust on the hardwood floors. She took a step forward, but Cassie grabbed her arm.

Youre sure about this?

Its an adventure, come on, Cassie. Itll be fun. Brenna stepped inside and flashed her light around. She stood in one large room, which served as a living and dining area and blended into a small kitchen. Opposite the front door was a narrow staircase, and next to the staircase, just off the kitchen, was an open door leading to another room. Brenna headed in that direction. Small kitchen, she remarked as she passed the area.

Cassie glanced around in the dim light, staying close to Brenna. This is creepy, she said. Lets pry one of these boards loose and let in more light. She pulled Brenna over to the kitchen window, and they tugged away a plank from the jamb. When a beam of sunlight pierced through the dim interior, it revealed boot prints on the dusty floor. Cassie squealed and attempted to flee.

I think its from your guy, Cassie. Brenna laughed at Cassies startled expression. Remember? You sent him over a few weeks ago.

Cassie smiled, but it looked more like a grimace to Brenna.

So now that youve seen it, youre not staying here tonight, right? Cassie followed her into the room off the kitchen. Youre going to stay at the hotel until you get the place cleaned.

The room the two had entered was the downstairs bedroom, and at one end of it was a short hallway leading to a bathroom and then to a back door, opening to the rear of the house.

I dont know. You said the utilities are on. Let me try the water. Brenna slipped into the bathroom and turned the knob on the sink. Water sprayed and a dark sludge began to pour from the spout. After a few moments, it still hadnt turned clear.

Youre going to need to run the lines and clear them. Cassie made a face of disgust. And Id buy bottled water, too. Dont drink this stuff.

Not a problem. I have a case of water in the back of the van. Brenna started toward the staircase.

Youre going up there? Cassie asked.

The staircase was steep and dark, and the top of the landing was hidden from view.

Brenna turned to her. The ghost haunts the grove, not the house, right?

Um, well…

Brenna snickered. Come on, lets check it out.

Cassie scoffed as she hurried behind her. You can make fun all you like, Brenna. Besides, what if she spends the day in the house and the night in the grove? Have you thought of that? Huh?

Cassie, youre being silly. Brenna searched for a switch, which she found and flipped on. Ah, look, the lightbulb your friend left in the hallway fixture.

The light revealed plastered walls, peeling and discolored where old water damage had stained and leached through the paint.

Ill need a roofer to come check for leaks. Lets hope mildew hasnt grown under the paint. Brenna ran her hand over the stain while she observed Cassie glancing around and down the stairs. Cassie? She walked close to her. You are scared, arent you? Youre not just joking.

Cassie licked her lips and held her arms around herself. Brenna, now that Im out here, I must insist you stay in town at the hotel. Im not sure this house is safe to occupy.

Itll be fine. The waters on and I have electricity. And you said he checked the gas and lit the pilot light. So come on, I want to check out the rest.

Brenna pulled Cassie by the arm and turned to one of the two doors of the upstairs rooms. She pushed the first door and it swung open. She flashed her light inside and saw it was just as empty and dusty as the downstairs. Help me pull a plank away and get some light in here.

The wood, as before, gave way, and a beam of sunlight pierced through the dirty and broken windowpanes. Brenna looked down at her van and out across the citrus trees. She could make out the pump house shed seen in the photograph in Cassies office, and by the disruption in the pattern of the trees, she gathered that was where the concrete slab lay.

Youre going to want to put cardboard in these panes or all your heat will be lost, Cassie said.

Ill call next week and see about having the windows replaced. Brenna stood back and guesstimated the width and height of the window. She turned toward the hallway. Lets see the other room. She tried the door handle on the second room and pushed with her shoulder against the door. Huh, this one seems locked. She examined the door with her flashlight. Is there a key for this room?

While Cassie tried the keys, Brenna beamed the flashlight on the door handle. Cassie finally found the right key and gave the handle a turn. The door swung open, and Brenna flashed her light into the room. But this one wasnt empty. Instead it was filled with stacks of loose papers, boxes, and a desk.

Whats all this? Brenna wove her way to the window. Give me a hand.

They pulled loose a plank, and just as in the previous room, sunlight poured into the area, but this rooms walls had been papered in an old-fashioned velvety print, yellow and embossed.

Icky. Brenna ran her hand over the paper and noticed it left a powdery trace on her fingers. She wiped her hand on her jeans and began to examine the boxes overflowing with files. There were photographs, too, stacked on top of each other and scattered on the desk. I wonder what this is all about. She picked up an old photo off the desk. As she did so, she spotting something else. Look at this lamp. She lifted an old oil lamp. It was grimy, sooty, and empty of fuel. And it still has a wick.

I bet thats an antique, and this desk looks old, too, Cassie said.

Maybe Ill get some oil for it. Theres a hardware store on the other side of the freeway where we turned off. Brenna returned the lamp to the desk and began leafing through the stacks of papers. What do you think these papers are about?

I dont know. Maybe the caretaker left them. Im not sure. Cassie began to examine the clutter as well. She held a faded document. Some of these receipts and documents are dated back over eighty years.

Brenna opened the desk drawers, finding them empty, and now she tried to open the largest drawer, but it was stuck.

Just then they heard a car door close, and Cassie peeked out the window. Great, shes here. She headed toward the hall. Come on, Ill introduce you to the owner of Santana and Sons. I think youll like her.

Her? Okay, just a second and Ill join you. Brenna tugged with a little more determination on the desks largest drawer. But it was no use. The drawer wouldnt budge. She glanced out the window to the gravel drive. She was intrigued by the idea of a woman owning her own construction business. Then, as she was about to turn to go downstairs, she saw the woman emerge from the pickup truck.

First two worn work boots and then legs in blue jeans emerged, followed by a shapely woman with wavy brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was dressed in an Eisenhower-style jacket, unzipped, revealing a tight knit shirt underneath. Brenna watched the woman smile, pull off her sunglasses, and reach out to Cassie. Even from the window, Brenna could see the womans large brown eyes. She watched the two embrace, but before the hug ended, Cassie and the woman kissed on the lips.

Huh. Okay. Brenna cocked her head then hurried downstairs to join them.

When she left the room, a cold chill swept through it, and the antique lamp sputtered and sparked. A flame flickered, lighting the old wick and spreading a weak light across the room before the flame died once again. Although it was a warm sixty-five degrees on that November morning, a frost had formed on one of the dirty windowpanes and a handprint appeared, as someone, something leaned against the window to watch the three women in the driveway below.


Chapter Three

Brenna paused in the shadow of the front door and observed the woman and Cassie talking. She thought the stranger was attractive with her tanned skin, dark hair, and bright smile. While she continued to observe, Brenna saw her reach inside the front pocket of her jeans, pulling back her short jacket to reveal a wide leather belt with a clip of keys on a loop. Brenna found her fascinating, a familiar sensation, but one shed not felt since Debra. Then as she walked out onto the porch, Cassie motioned her over.

Alex Santana, Brenna Wilson. Brenna, Alex. Cassie pointed to each as a way of introduction

Brenna extended her hand. Hello.

A pleasure. Alex took her hand in a firm grip. I understand from Cassie youre thinking of renovating this old place.

Brenna blinked. Shed never known a woman with such long eyelashes. Thats the plan. She glanced at the side of Alexs truck and recognized the logo of the sun and mountains shed seen on the business card.

Ambitious plan. Alex smiled.

Brenna blinked again. Alexs teeth were milky white, perfectly shaped. She glanced at the truck once more. Youre the Santana of Santana and Sons? She felt her neck grow warm and her face tingle at her own awkwardness.

Cassie and Alex looked at each other and snickered.

No, not the original Santana, Alex said. That would be my father. He started the business forty years ago. I inherited it when he retired.

Brenna detected a mild accent as she spoke. Alex clipped her words, and Brenna realized that was her way of minimizing her inflections.

So its you and your sons then? Brenna wanted to smack her own face. It was an asinine question, she knew. Clearly Alex wasnt old enough to have working age sons.

Again Alex and Cassie shared a glance and a smile.

No sons for me, Alex said. My father started the business before I was born, and I think it was wishful thinking on his part hed someday have sons. But here you have it. He ended up with a daughter instead. Alex smiled again, revealing deep laugh lines on either side of her full lips. Weve never bothered to change the name since the business is so well-known in the Valley.

Brenna blinked a few times more. She thought she might be hallucinating; the morning sunlight seemed to be pouring, not from the sky, but from this womans radiant face. She felt something shift inside her head, the pressure around her jaw and throat ease.

I see. She wondered why both women watched her with odd grins. She sputtered as she spoke again. So, yeah… She cleared her throat. So Cassie said you may be able to get the road graded and cleared starting next week.

Ill get a crew on it first thing Monday morning. Alex scanned Brennas minivan. Yes, youll rip out your underside if youre not careful.

Brenna looked back at her van. She and Edward had purchased it more than a year ago. Michael had taken up soccer and T-ball, and shed become the stereotypical soccer mom, driving other womens children to practices and games since most of them had careers or jobs outside the home.

Im thinking of trading it in for a Jeep anyway, she blurted out. Shed been unaware of that desire until now.

Alex pulled her wallet from her jackets inner pocket and fished out a business card. Go see my cousin Victor at San Tan Jeep and Chrysler. Tell him I sent you, and hell give you a good deal. She took a step closer and grew serious.

Brenna held her breath, uncertain what was happening as Alex seemed to be just inches from her, looking as if she was about to hug her.

Cassie told me you lost your family in April, Alex said. Im sorry to hear that. And she also told me you dont know anyone out here, so—she pulled another business card from her wallet and a pen from her pocket and scribbled something on the back—take my card. The front number rings the main office, but Ive put my personal cell on the back if you cant reach me otherwise.

Brenna gazed into Alexs eyes and reached for the card. When she tried to speak, her voice caught in her throat. She coughed and covered her mouth. Um, thanks, thats kind of you to offer your number. She began twirling a lock of hair, something she hadnt done in a long time. It was a habit from childhood, something she did when she was feeling uncertain. Again, she saw Cassie and Alex exchange glances.

Hey, Alex, Cassie said, could you take a look at the garage doors? We cant get them open, and theres no keyhole or lock we can see.

Brenna let go of her breath, grateful Alexs attention was diverted from her as she walked toward the garage. And as she did, Brenna watched her and admired the way her jeans hugged her hips and curves. She twirled a lock of hair with more vigor.

Alex pulled and pushed on the double doors. She examined the bottom of each door and stood on tiptoe to run her hand along the top lip of the frame. She rattled and yanked one more time and even put her shoulder against one of the doors and shoved. Nothing happened.

Theyre warped from the rain and heat, Id guess, Alex said. Youll need to pry them open, if you dont mind damaging the wood. She ran her hand along the seam where the two doors met. Whats this? She leaned close. It looks as if someones nailed the doors shut. Look here, theyve countersunk the nail heads and even bothered to paint over them. Strange.

Why would they do that? Cassie asked.

Who knows? Alex shrugged and came back over. Did you plan on parking inside? she asked Brenna.

But Brenna was concentrating on Alexs boots.

Brenna?

What? Brenna startled and looked up.

If you want, I can work on it Monday, maybe work the hinges loose. Do you want to park inside? Alex asked.

Brenna stared at Alexs lips. The little smile lines on either side fascinated her.

Brenna? Alex moved her head to the side and made eye contact.

Huh? Brenna shook herself. Sure. What did you say? She felt her ears burning and almost groaned out loud. She hated when she became tongue-tied like this around women. Beautiful women, strong women, women to whom she couldnt help but be drawn.

Cassie snickered and put her arm around Brennas shoulders and patted. Shes got a lot to think about, Alex. Maybe the garage can wait.

Yes, it can wait, Alex said. But Im sending in my guys when we do get those doors open. You know therere snakes and scorpions inside, not to mention black widow spiders. She made spidery movements with her fingers and did a fake shiver before chuckling.

Snakes? Brenna squeaked. She felt the heat drain from her face.

Alex, Cassie said.

Alex glanced first at Cassie and back at Brenna. Dont worry. If therere snakes, my guys will clear them out, and theyll clear out the scorpions and spiders, too. Trust me we have all kinds of experience working in the desert. Snakes, tarantulas, rabid coyotes, and—

Alex. Cassie stopped her and turned to Brenna. Shes exaggerating, sweetie. Im sure itll be fine.

Brenna swallowed and licked her lips.

I was only going to add, and the ghosts of Apache warriors and conquistadors, Cassie. No need to bite my head off. Alex laughed.

Cassie shot her another look.

At this, Alex muted her laugh and took hold of Brennas upper arm, lowering her voice. Dont worry, Brenna. You have my word. Ill make sure all the creepy crawlies are rounded up and returned to the open desert.

Brenna nodded, calmed by her touch.

I didnt mean to frighten you. Im sorry, Alex said.

Okay, thank you. Brenna liked the way Alex looked at her, and for a moment she was able to return her gaze. But she caught Cassie out of her side vision and glanced to see her smiling that same secretive smile shed given her in the office weeks ago.

I should go run the water lines. Brenna held out her hand. It was shaking. Nice to meet you, Alex. Im glad to have you working on me for my property. I mean… She groaned. I mean, for me on my property. She bit her lip and pulled her hand away.

You go on, Brenna, Cassie said. Alex and I will look over the contract.

Great. Okay. Brenna hurried to the front door, but stopped when she heard Alex call after her.

Ill check on you next week, if youre around, Alex said. And dont worry, my crews are clean. Well haul in our own john and wont leave any trash behind. Theyre also expected to be respectful to the client, so no need to worry about them catcalling or harassing you in any way. Theyll have me to answer to if they do.

Okay. Right. Okay. Brenna struggled to form a coherent reply, gave up, and darted into the house, where she stood inside and worked to catch her breath.

It was a silly feeling, she knew. Silly, but exhilarating. Shed been sure shed never feel this way again, not after losing Michael. But as she held her hand to her heart and felt the rapid beating, she realized the feeling was there and couldnt be denied. Leaning against the door, but out of view, she watched Cassie and Alex talking. She could hear their voices, but couldnt make out what they were saying. Then she saw Alex run her hand down Cassies shoulder and rest it on her lower back. It was an affectionate gesture, and Brenna grunted with disappointment. But her observations were interrupted when she heard movement behind her. She turned, curious only, and faced the darkened stairway. Was something moving at the top of the stairs? She took a few steps closer and strained her eyes. She turned on the flashlight shed been holding and moved the beam of light upward, a step at a time, certain shed heard something almost like footsteps. A hand closed on her shoulder.

Contract looks in order, Cassie said.

Brenna jumped. Damn, Cassie, you startled me!

Startled you? Cassie looked over at the stairway and back at Brenna. Are you okay? Youve gone pale.

Im good. The dust, I think Im having an allergic reaction to the dust.

Okay, well the crews will be here Monday morning, and well get this thing moving along.

Great.

You sure youre okay? Cassie asked again.

Yes, Im sure. Im going to check the water in the kitchen. Brenna pushed past her and in moments was occupied with the kitchen faucet while Cassie inspected the dials on the old stove. As the water sprayed, Brenna leaned against the countertop. She was aware Cassie was studying her. Alex seems nice. She tried to sound nonchalant.

She is.

Brenna looked sideways at her. She wondered about their relationship. You two seem close.

Shes one of my dearest friends. Ive known her since high school. Cassie checked the kitchen cupboards.

Shes incredibly pretty. Its hard to think of someone that attractive being in construction. She looks like she could be a model.

Cassie chuckled. Ive always hated her for her complexion. She spends all that time out in the sun and never wrinkles.

Yes, she has beautiful skin. Brenna cringed. Had she admitted that out loud?

I have to tell you, Cassie said, shes one of the most dependable and faithful friends Ive ever had. Maybe the most ethical person I know. And she has the goofiest sense of humor in the world. You never know what sort of practical joke shell pull. Sometimes I want to strangle her, and other times she makes me laugh so hard I wet myself.

I sort of picked up on that. Brenna thought about the way Alex had joked about snakes and spiders.

Listen, Brenna, you should call her if you need anything. I mean, you have my number, too, but Alex wouldnt have given you her number if she didnt want you to use it.

Ill keep that in mind, thanks. Brenna turned off the water, convinced it was running clear enough. Both you and Alex are such nice people. I appreciate all your help. She handed the flashlight to Cassie. Would you check for the key that unlocks the back door? Im going to bring in a few boxes from the van.

Cassie took the flashlight. Okay, but dont be long. I dont like being inside here by myself.

Brenna went out front and started moving boxes from her van inside. As she worked, she thought about Alex and Cassie, wondered if they were simply close friends or a couple as she suspected. On her third trip back to her vehicle, she lifted a box from the back and happened to glance at the two windows on the second floor. That was strange, she thought. Cassie mustve gone back upstairs into the room with the desk and boxes—she was standing at the window watching her. But wait, Cassie was a blonde. The person at the window was—

What are you looking at? Cassie came around the side of the van.

Brenna jumped once again. Cassie, I swear you keep sneaking up on me. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. She mustve been mistaken. It couldnt have been Cassie. She couldve sworn shed seen a woman with long black hair watching her from the window.

Why are you so jumpy all of a sudden? Cassie asked.

Brenna shook her head and giggled. Her nerves were all scattered, she realized. But she wasnt sure if it was because of her unexpected attraction to Alex or Cassies ridiculous story. She wagged her finger in Cassies direction. Your stupid ghost story has got me all worked up.

But you said you dont believe in ghosts.

I dont. Brenna glanced at the window once again. She knew she was being silly, but something felt off, something she couldnt explain. I think Ill stay another couple nights at the hotel. I need to pick up a sleeping bag and air mattress anyway.

Cassie let out a dramatic sigh of relief. Thank goodness. Now well both get some sleep tonight.

After locking up and getting back into the van, Brenna turned her vehicle around to head back toward the entry road as Cassie began to chatter about the restaurant she wanted to take her to Saturday afternoon for lunch. Brenna nodded while she navigated the road, but she wasnt listening. Instead, she watched in her rearview mirror as the house retreated in the background. She wondered what shed heard—or thought shed heard—at the top of the stairs, what shed seen, or thought shed seen in the window. However, by the time shed said good-bye to Cassie, driven down the highway, and turned onto the freeway heading back to hotel, shed managed to convince herself her unexpected excitement over meeting the beautiful Alex Santana had knocked her off her guard, had momentarily made her forget her rational mind. And Cassies absurd story had simply wrestled with her imagination. She didnt believe in ghosts, she told herself once again. In truth, she believed in very little anymore.