CHAPTER 8

Bree

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I woke up gasping. Before I could even sit up, I was catapulted straight into the mother of all flashbacks. It had the strength and vividness of the ones I had had directly following my father's murder–complete with my dad lying in a pool of blood, his lifeless eyes staring up at the ceiling. I gripped the bed sheets and rode it out, that same loud screeching sound filling my brain until reality finally took hold and the world around me cleared.

A few minutes later, I leaned over the toilet, tears swimming in my eyes. "Why?" I moaned, full of self-pity, full of the pain and grief the memories brought.

I pulled myself up and shakily got into the shower, refusing to spend the rest of the day in bed like I wanted to now, like I had done for months after that night.

The flashback sure had killed the happy buzz I had going on last night.

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I took a quick shower and pulled on my suit, shorts and tank. For some reason, spending time down at the little lake beach out on Briar Road filled me with a particular sense of contentment. Yes, I had had that dream about my dad there, but despite the sadness of missing him, and the dream bringing that up, I had woken from it with a feeling of hope. I liked it there.

I set out on my bike, Phoebe riding in the basket in front. The morning was bright and already getting hot. It was the end of August–I had no idea when the weather started to turn in Maine, but for now, it still felt like summer.

I turned onto Briar Road, letting my bike coast as I brought both legs out to the side. I took my hands off of the handlebars for a brief few seconds and let my bike steer itself, bumping over the small stones on the dirt road and laughing out. Phoebe barked several times as if to say, "Be careful, daredevil."

"I know, precious cargo. I won't wreck us, Phoebs."

When I got to the lake, I laid my towel and cooler down in my usual spot and waded into the cool water, Phoebe watching me from the shore. The water felt delicious, lapping gently against my thighs as I waded further out. Finally, I immersed myself completely and began swimming, the water flowing against my body like a cool caress.

As I turned around and headed back, I heard an animal, a large dog most likely, I thought, howling as if it was in great distress. Phoebe started yapping excitedly, running back and forth along the beach. I pulled my body out of the water completely and stopped to listen, the howling continuing to my left, in the direction of Archer Hale's property.

I wondered if his acreage possibly extended all the way to this small beach? I guessed that it very well could. I walked over to the edge of the woods and when I pushed some brambles aside and squinted in through the trees, I couldn't make anything out other than more trees. But about a hundred feet in, I saw a whole bunch of blackberry bushes. I sucked in a breath, excitement filling me. My dad had made this insanely good blackberry cobbler. If he could only see this bounty right in front of me. I started toward the crop of bushes, but when a branch caught my bare tummy, I hissed in a breath and retreated. I wasn't dressed for blackberry picking. That would have to be for another day.

I returned to my towel, dried off and then sat back down. I spent several hours there, reading and lying in the sun before Phoebe and I headed for home. As usual, I paused briefly in front of Archer's gate, wondering again at what those faded spots on his fence had once said.

"Stalker much, Bree?" I whispered to myself. As I was peddling away, I heard the same distressed dog howling. I hoped whatever that was, Archer had a handle on it.

I went home and changed and then drove downtown to stop in at the Pelion Public Library. I spent an hour there picking out several new books. Unfortunately, I had left my e-reader back in Cincinnati and so I was back to paperbacks. I didn't realize how much I had missed the smell and feel of an old-fashioned book in my hands. Also, no downloading, no account. I hadn't been on Facebook for over six months and I didn't miss it.

I dropped the pile of books in my passenger seat and then headed to the grocery store to stock up for the week.

I spent a good amount of time going down each and every aisle, reading labels and filling up my cart. By the time I was ready to check out, the big windows in front of the register told me it was dusk outside.

"Hi," I smiled at the young woman behind the register.

"Hey," she said, snapping her gum. "Any coupons?"

"Oh, no," I said, shaking my head. "Never could get the hang of that. Whenever I tried, I always ended up with twelve boxes of something I didn't even eat and laundry soap that left big clumps of…" I trailed off when I realized the girl in front of me was ringing my order up with one hand and texting on her phone lying on the cash register with the other. She wasn't listening to a word I was saying. Okay, fine.

"Sixty two, eight seven," she said, popping her gum again.

I pulled the money out of my wallet. Sixty dollars even. Shit.

"Oh gosh," I said, my cheeks heating, "I'm so sorry, I thought I was paying attention. I only have sixty. I have to put something back."

She sighed heavily and rolled her eyes. "What do you want to put back?"

"Uh," I started digging through my already packed bags, "how about this? I don't really need this." I handed her the new sponge I had bought, just to replace the old one at my cottage.

"That's only sixty four cents," she said.

I blinked and someone in line behind me grumbled. "Oh, um, well, let's see…" I dug around a little more. "Oh! How about these? I don't really need these." I handed her the new package of razors I had gotten. She reached for them and I pulled them back. "Wait, actually, I kind of do need these. Half Polish and all." I laughed nervously. Clerk girl did not laugh. "Um…" I stuck my head back in my bags, noting more grumbling behind me.

"Uh, thanks," I heard the clerk say and when I looked up at her confused face, she said slowly, "He's got you," indicating her head to her right. Confused, I leaned forward and looked past the bitter-faced old man standing right next to me to see Archer Hale standing behind him, his eyes honed in on me. He was wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up even though it was hardly chilly.

I smiled, tilting my head slightly. The clerk cleared her throat, getting my attention. I took my receipt out of her hand and moved forward to stand at the end of the counter.

"Thank you so much, Archer," I said.

Archer kept his eyes focused on me. The clerk and the old man looked from me, back to Archer, twin expressions of confusion on their faces.

"I'll pay you back, of course." I smiled again, but he didn't. I shook my head slightly looking around, noting that people at the registers to my right and left were watching us now.

The old man paid for his couple items and moved past me after a minute, and Archer set a large bag of dog food down on the conveyer belt.

"Oh!" I said, "I was down at the lake today and I thought I heard a dog howling from your property. It sounded like one was in pain." He glanced at me, handing some bills over to the clerk. I looked around again, noting all the eyes still on us. Archer Hale didn't appear to be aware of them at all.

I huffed out a breath and signed to Archer, These people sure are nosy, aren't they?

Lip quirk. Blink. Gone.

He took his purchases and walked past me. I turned and wheeled my cart behind him, feeling dumb and self-conscious again. I shook my head to myself and headed toward my car. I took one last glance in Archer's direction and saw that he was looking back at me as well.

My mouth fell open when he raised his hand and signed, Goodnight, Bree. He turned back around and seconds later, he was gone. I leaned back against my car and grinned like a fool.

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