The century-old farmhouse looked haunted…
Sadie Harris wasn’t particularly superstitious, but knowing two people had been murdered in an upstairs bedroom of this isolated white clapboard home didn’t make her eager to work here. She parked outside the gate and sat in her car, engine off, angling her head to see through the passenger window.
Dawson Reed, who’d placed the newspaper ad she’d responded to, was out of jail, all right. A pickup truck that didn’t appear to be in much better shape than the rattletrap Chevy El Camino her mother’s brother left her when he died three months ago sat in the drive. Not only that, the 2x4s that’d blocked the doors and windows of the house for the past twelve months had been pried away, some of the weeds had been trimmed in front and the mailbox had been straightened and reinforced. But Dawson hadn’t been home long enough to get around to everything that needed tending to. What with the vandalism that’d occurred in his absence and the deferred maintenance that went along with having a house sit empty for so long, he had his work cut out for him.
She wondered what he had to be thinking, now that he’d returned to Silver Springs. After a year spent fighting for his freedom, he’d narrowly escaped a verdict that would’ve landed him on death row. But he couldn’t be too excited to rejoin this small community. Regardless of what the jury said, he was guilty in the minds of all those who lived around here.
Sadie frowned as her eyes traced the graffiti that was still on the house. Someone had spray-painted the word murderer on the wood siding above the porch, in letters large enough to be read from the highway a quarter mile away. That Dawson hadn’t scrubbed it off first thing said something about him, didn’t it? But what? Was he too beleaguered after his long ordeal to care what folks thought? Too busy with items he felt should be handled first? Or was leaving it there his way of flipping off the many concerned citizens of Silver Springs?
He could be taunting his detractors because he’d wound up inheriting the property despite what they thought…
The alarm she’d set on her phone sounded, startling her so much she whacked her hand on the steering wheel. “Ow!” she complained as she grabbed her cell and turned off the noise. If she planned to be on time for this interview, she had only three minutes to walk the length of the dirt drive leading to the front door. And yet she wasn’t completely convinced she should keep the appointment, couldn’t even say what kind of job it would be. Although Dawson had advertised for a housekeeper/caregiver, he lived alone. Why couldn’t he take care of himself?
Not many healthy adults had a housekeeper in Silver Springs. That sort of freaked her out right there, before she even got to the fact that it was dangerous to meet a man out here, alone, who might’ve hacked his adoptive parents to death with a hatchet.
She shuddered at the bloody image that crept into her mind. The gruesome details of the Reed killings had been reported in the papers and on the evening news with great regularity. Any murder in these parts would be shocking. LA was only ninety minutes to the south. Such a crime wouldn’t be so unheard of there. But this was a peaceful artist and farming community with mission-style adobe buildings and beautiful murals. The worst thing that’d ever happened, before the Reed murders—at least in recent memory—was when the Mueller girl ran away and was kidnapped. Even that was twenty years ago, and she went to Hollywood, so she was kidnapped there.
Pressing the button that would bring up her display, Sadie checked the time on her phone—the clock in the car was broken, along with everything else that didn’t directly contribute to the drivability of the vehicle. Two minutes. Dared she go? Or should she take off while she still could?
Sly, her domineering, soon-to-be ex-husband, would warn her to keep her distance from Dawson. He’d already put in his two cents. They’d argued about it for over an hour last night. “You don’t want to work for that bastard. What kind of guy kills two old people in their sleep—the couple who took him in when no one else would? Fed him? Clothed him? Treated him as their biological child? They were so proud of him! And you wouldn’t believe what he did to those people. Talk about the ultimate betrayal.”
When Sadie had pointed out that no one knew for sure whether Dawson had killed his adoptive parents, that there hadn’t been enough evidence for a conviction, he’d alluded to having some insider knowledge to suggest Dawson was as guilty as the infamous O.J. had been. “Trust me. You don’t know everything,” he’d said.
He knew everything, though—always had. She was tired of that, tired of him. He’d been playing games with her since before the murders ever occurred, drawing out the divorce proceedings, hiding any extra income he earned working security at various functions so it wouldn’t be included in his child support calculation, threatening to fight her for custody of their five-year-old son if she didn’t accept the pittance he offered. Since she’d been the one to move out, he was living alone in a three-bedroom, while she and Jayden were squeezed into a tiny one-bedroom guesthouse. But having the better living situation wasn’t enough for him. He was trying to keep her destitute so she’d have to come back if she wanted to be able to feed and clothe their child—and eat herself.
She let her gaze range over the farm and the fields that stretched on either side. The place didn’t look inviting. Several windows had been broken, an outbuilding had been burned and a pile of cast-off furniture and other rubbish from God knew where had been dumped in the yard. Even more notable, the closest neighbor had to be a mile away…
He’s a nut job. That was what Sly had said just before he hung up. As a Silver Springs police officer, he spoke with more than a little arrogance and authority. But in recent years, he’d related so many stories that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up—stories about breaking up a high school drinking party but not reporting the kids so long as they gave up all their beer, or picking up a prostitute but not arresting her if she “baked the force some cookies.” Although Sadie had a feeling there was a lot more involved than cookies—she’d once heard Sly make a crude joke about it—he denied any wrongdoing when she questioned him. Said he was only kidding. But if he thought he could get away with using his badge to gain some advantage in a situation, even if it was just to scare people or make someone scramble out of the way, he’d do it. And, especially toward the end of their marriage, he’d started throwing his weight around with her, too. Although he’d never seriously hurt her, he’d come close.
As far as she was concerned, he was a “nut job” himself. So why would she let him make her decision for her? She couldn’t trust him. At least, as far as trust went, Dawson was still a question mark.
With only a minute left, she got out of the car. Dawson was offering full-time employment doing…something she hoped she was capable of, and he was promising to pay much more than she was making waiting tables at Lolita’s Country Kitchen. If she wanted to escape her ex-husband for good, this was her chance. It wasn’t as if she could get anything else, not with Sly using his influence to sabotage her in every way possible. No one dared get on his bad side—he’d make life too difficult—so whenever she applied for a job, she was told she didn’t qualify, or a better candidate had been selected. The only reason she had her job at Lolita’s was because she’d been working there since before she left him.
Dawson didn’t have any reason to harm her. That was what she had to remember. If he killed Mr. and Mrs. Reed, he did it because he wanted their farm—not that that was any small thing.
As she drew closer to the house, she could see storm damage to the roof, peeling paint and bird droppings on the railing of the porch. These physical details added to her overall apprehension, but she didn’t get truly chilled until a curtain moved in the window. The idea that Dawson was looking out at her, watching her approach, almost made her turn back. She stopped, but before she could do anything, the front door opened and her prospective employer strode out.
“You must be Sadie Harris.”
Silver Springs had only about 5,000 residents. The town wasn’t large by any stretch of the imagination, and yet they’d never met. Not only was he two years older—she knew his age because of the many newspaper reports and the trial that’d revealed so much about his life—they’d gone to different high schools. She’d attended the public high school; he’d attended New Horizons, a boarding school exclusive to boys. Troubled boys.
So…how troubled was he? Troubled enough to murder the couple who’d taken him in? Troubled enough to lure a woman out to his farm with the false promise of employment?
She hoped not.
“Yes. I—” she cleared her throat as she shoved that last thought away “—I’m Sadie.”
“And I’m Dawson.”
As if he needed to identify himself. Close to six feet, he’d been out of jail long enough to have seen several days of sun. His sandy-colored hair, cut in a military style typical of county jail inmates, blended well with the golden color of his skin while contrasting sharply with his eyes, which were blue but not a deep blue—more ice-like. She’d known he was handsome before she came. Everyone had made a big deal about how his “angel” face didn’t jive with his “devilish” actions. She’d seen so many pictures she would’ve recognized him even if he hadn’t been standing on his own porch. “I know.”
“You followed the trial.”
“To a degree, yes. It was the talk of the town, pretty hard to miss.”
He nodded as if her response was nothing less than what he’d expected. “Right. That’s unfortunate, of course. But…thanks for coming.”
“No problem.” She wiped her sweaty palms on the flowing black skirt that constituted half of her best outfit. Sly had thrown away most of her clothes—everything she hadn’t been able to carry in that first load—when he came home to find her moving out. She’d grabbed Jayden’s things first, so that didn’t leave her with a lot of wardrobe choices. No doubt she looked a little silly hobbling down the rutted lane in a black blouse, a flowing skirt and high heels, but she didn’t feel as if she could show up for an interview in jeans.
“Would you rather talk out here on the porch?” he asked. “I’ve made coffee. I can bring out a cup and some chairs.”
He could tell she wasn’t set on staying. This was an attempt to entice her. But she couldn’t leave, not unless she wanted to walk right back into Sly’s arms. She needed the job, needed the money.
“Um…” She almost said it wasn’t necessary that he go to the trouble. She’d been programmed from birth to say those types of things, to be polite. And although it never got very cold—their weather was much like that of Santa Barbara twenty minutes away—it was a little chilly this morning. Thick dark clouds blotted out the sun, showing signs of rain. But she was frightened enough that the idea of staying outside did raise her comfort level. She had to be cautious. Had to be around for her son, after all. She didn’t like the way his father treated him. That was part of the reason she’d finally gathered the strength and determination to leave Sly, despite what she knew he’d put her through. He wasn’t proud of Jayden like he should be; most of the time he acted embarrassed of their sweet, gentle boy.
She drew a deep breath. “The weather’s not too bad. Sitting outside would be a great idea. If you don’t mind,” she added lamely.
“I don’t mind. I’ll be right back.”
As soon as he disappeared, she twisted around to see her car, trying to gauge the distance in case she had to kick off her shoes and make a run for it. The El Camino wasn’t all that far. Since she’d parked it outside the gate, where there’d be no danger of getting blocked in, she could make a quick getaway, if necessary.
Somewhat relieved to have Dawson occupied elsewhere for the moment, she hurried to the porch as best she could without turning an ankle and gazed at the dry rot and warped boards that needed to be replaced while telling herself to calm down.
When he returned with a small table and then a tray supporting two cups of coffee, as well as cream and sugar, she wished she had said no to the coffee. She’d been so preoccupied it hadn’t occurred to her he might’ve spiked it.
“Have a seat.” Next, he brought out chairs and placed hers—rather strategically, she thought—near the stairs and away from him. “It’s great to meet you. I appreciate you coming out here in spite of…in spite of everything.”
She didn’t deserve any gratitude. She wouldn’t have come if she’d had a better choice. “Sure. It’s okay.”
“Would you like cream? Sugar?”
She went through the process of adding cream and one packet of sugar to her coffee even though she couldn’t drink it.
“So…you live in Silver Springs?” he asked when she finished.
She met his eyes, tried to determine if they were lifeless. She’d heard that serial killers had emotionless, flat eyes, like those of a shark. But she wasn’t sure a man who killed his parents for the sake of financial gain counted as a serial killer. Probably not. And there didn’t seem to be anything unappealing about Dawson’s eyes. The reverse was actually true. They were such an odd, arresting color and fringed with the longest, thickest gold-tipped lashes. “I do,” she said.
“How long have you been in the area?”
“Since I was ten. My folks moved here, wanted to get out of the rat race of LA.”
“Your parents are in town, then?”
The wind came up, but other than trying to hold her hair back with one hand while gripping her coffee, she resisted the temptation to react to the cold. After making him bring everything outside, she didn’t want him to suggest they go in. “No, not anymore.” She set her cup on the stand with the cream and sugar. “My mother had a rare kidney disease. That was part of the reason for the move, although I didn’t know it at the time. We lost her when I was fourteen. My father finished raising me, but he died of a heart attack—while jogging—the year after I was married.”
“I’m sorry you lost your parents so early.”
“I guess we all have our problems.” She felt silly after she’d made that statement. No question his problems had been worse. At least she hadn’t been accused of killing her parents.
He took a drink of his coffee. “Any siblings?”
“No. I was an only child.”
When his free hand came up, she flinched before realizing that he was merely swatting a bug, and her cheeks began to burn with embarrassment when he scooted his chair even farther away. Obviously, he’d noticed that she wasn’t quite comfortable with him. She hoped he hadn’t also noticed that she had yet to take a sip of her coffee.
“So you’re married.”
She picked up her cup and cradled it with both hands, trying to leach the warmth from it. “Not anymore. Well, the divorce isn’t quite final, but that’s a technicality. We’ve been separated for over a year.” Conjuring what she hoped was a pleasant smile, she marveled that she was able to condense the hell Sly had put her through—was still putting her through—into such a mild statement. “Trying to work out the details, you know.”
He watched her closely, seemed intent on figuring out what she was thinking and feeling. Did killers do that? “Those things can take time.”
“Are you speaking from experience? Or…” She didn’t remember reading anything about him having a wife.
“No children, either?”
“Not for me. You?”
“One. A boy named Jayden. He’s five.” She couldn’t help smiling, vaguely, when she thought of her son.
“Does he live with you or—”
She felt her smile wilt. “Yeah, he’s with me. His father has visitation every other weekend, but… Sly’s a police officer, so he works long hours.” Or he was at the gym. “I have Jayden most of the time.” Which was why it didn’t make a lot of sense that Sly would ever sue her for custody. He didn’t really want custody. He was using Jayden, along with anything else he could, as a weapon against her.
Dawson pursed his lips. “So that’s the connection.”
She peered at him. “What’re you talking about?”
“I thought maybe you were Officer Harris’s sister or something. But no—you’re married to him.”
She stiffened at the mention of her ex-husband’s name. “Was married. Why? You know him?”
“Not personally.” Leaning forward, he poured a bit of cream in his coffee, added one sugar as he’d seen her do and slid the cup over to her. “You saw me drink out of this, so other than a few germs you wouldn’t otherwise encounter, you should be able to trust it.”
Surprised he’d be so direct, she floundered for something to say in return. “That’s not it. I’m just…jittery enough without the caffeine.”
He said nothing, but she could tell he wasn’t fooled by the lie.
“So…how have you heard of my ex-husband?” she asked, quickly changing the subject. “He didn’t have anything to do with…with the investigation…”
“No. I was arrested by a homicide detective. Officer Harris wasn’t involved in the case. But he dropped by last night.”
Her surprise overtook her anxiety, even made her forget about the cold air that seemed to be passing through her blouse like a mesh screen. “He came here? Why?”
Rain began to plink on the roof. “To let me know he’ll be keeping an eye on me,” he replied.
“Anything I might do he doesn’t approve of, I suppose. Sounded like he was looking forward to the challenge of keeping me in line.”
Sadie figured she shouldn’t be surprised that Sly would try to bully Dawson. He was the big, tough cop—thought he could bully anyone. Of course he’d pile on when it came to the town pariah. “Was he in uniform?”
A wry smile tugged at Dawson’s lips. “His appearance wouldn’t have had the same impact without it.”
Her nails curved into her palms as the anger and bitterness she’d had to live with for so long once again rose inside her, burning her throat like bile. “Please tell me he didn’t mention me…”
“Not by name. Said there was a woman coming to interview with me in the morning. And that she wasn’t the person I was looking for.”
She felt her jaw drop. “He threatened you?”
“If you consider ‘You’ve had enough trouble, it wouldn’t be smart to ask for any more’ a threat.”
This was the first time anyone had been brave enough to admit that Sly had attempted to ruin her chances of gaining employment.
Too upset to sit any longer, Sadie came to her feet. “That…that…” She wasn’t sure if she meant to say “That isn’t fair” or “That really pisses me off,” because both sentences ran through her mind at once. But when she got angry, she often broke into tears, especially when it came to her ex-husband. He made her feel so helpless, so easily overpowered—and he was relentless in his determination to get her back or make her pay, supremely confident he’d win in the end.
Would she never be free of him?
Falling silent for fear her voice would crack, she turned so that Dawson Reed couldn’t see her face and stared out at the rain.
Thankfully, he didn’t press her to finish her statement. He sat behind her in silence, giving her time to compose herself.
“I’m sorry,” she said when she could speak without evidence of tears in her voice. “I know you’ve been through…quite an ordeal. I…I’ll get out of your way.”
She’d already started down the stairs when he spoke. “Mrs. Harris…”
“Please, call me anything but that.” She wished she could use her maiden name, but she knew how Sly would perceive such a move, how embarrassed he’d be. She’d do it one day. She’d made a promise to herself. But, at the moment, there were too many other, more important battles to fight—and win.
The rain was falling harder now, soaking her blouse and skirt, but she didn’t care that she was getting wet. She closed her eyes and turned her face up to the sky, letting it wash away her makeup and run her mascara. What did things like that matter, anyway?
“Don’t leave…” Dawson had followed her. From his voice, he was right behind her, but he didn’t touch her. She wished, if he was a deranged killer intent on committing another murder, he’d hurry up and get it over with, because she no longer had the energy to keep soldiering on. Sly made her feel that cornered, that hopeless.
But then she thought of Jayden being stranded with only Sly to guide him through life and came back to the truth: she couldn’t give up. If this wasn’t going to work, she’d have to figure out some other way to build a new life.
She left him in the yard, was almost to her car when he caught up and grabbed her by the arm. Thanks to the wind and rain, she hadn’t heard him following her. She nearly screamed, but he let go as soon as she turned, lifting his hands as if he’d only been trying to get her attention and had no plans to harm her. “Stay a little longer,” he said. “Please. We haven’t talked about the job.”
Because she was unable to hold her tears in check, they rolled down her cheeks, mingling with the rain. “You can’t hire me now,” she said. “You have no idea what he’ll do. He’ll make your life so miserable you’ll wish you were still in jail.”
He wiped the rain from his own face. “That’s a chance I’m willing to take.”
“I need you.”
Sadie shielded her eyes with one hand. “To make your meals? To clean your house? You can do that yourself—and save a lot of money.”
“That’s not it. I won’t be able to get my sister out of the institution where they put her if I don’t have someone to look after her while I’m on the farm. She’s mentally handicapped, could try to cook and burn down the house. Or go outside and wander off. There’s a pond out back. Wouldn’t be safe if she got around it.”
Sadie had forgotten about Angela Reed! She hadn’t been mentioned in the media since Lonnie’s and Larry’s bodies were discovered. Now that he’d brought her up, however, Sadie remembered reading, early on, that the Reeds’ daughter had to be institutionalized when they were killed and Dawson was imprisoned. She also remembered reading that Angela had been home during the murders but had been left unharmed, which wasn’t a point in Dawson’s favor. The police claimed her well-being served as proof that he was behind the killings, since only those who had to be removed in order for him to inherit had been harmed. “You want to bring her here?” she asked, gesturing at the weed-infested farm.
“I’m going to bring her here,” he clarified as if nothing could stop him. “This is her home. This is where she’d prefer to be. And she’s waited long enough. We both have.”
Sadie adjusted the strap on her purse. “So what would I be doing, exactly? I’ve never cared for someone who…who can’t manage the basics. You might have to advertise for a nurse or—”
“Angela isn’t on any meds. She manages, at a very basic level. She’s similar to…to a five-year-old. Like your son. She just needs some guidance, some reassurance and oversight.”
“And you can’t do it?”
“What if she got confused and wouldn’t come out of the bathroom? Or needed help in the shower? I couldn’t go in—but you could.”
“You’re saying I’d be like a…a female companion. A babysitter.”
“Exactly. You’d make sure she bathes every morning. Puts on clean underwear and clothes. Has a healthy breakfast and is able to watch her favorite shows. You’d read to her, play games with her, take her out for walks. And you’d fix her lunch and dinner, since I won’t be finished until sundown or later. You’d also do laundry and help keep the house clean so I won’t have that to face when I come in at night—pretty much everything you do for your son. But you could bring him along, watch them both at the same time, if you like. That would save on child care, if that’s something you’re paying for now. And Angela would love having a little boy around—she’s always loved kids. She’s gentle, sweet. You wouldn’t have to worry about her ever hurting him.”
Sadie loved the idea of spending more time with her son. Saving on child care, which was such a big part of her monthly budget, sounded appealing, too, not to mention how much she’d miss Jayden if she was working more hours.
But she wasn’t worried about Angela hurting her son…
Besides, Sly would never put up with her bringing Jayden to this place. He’d claim she was endangering their son, would use such “reckless behavior” against her if he ever did sue for custody. “I have a good situation for him already.” She paid Petra Smart, a mother who had three children of her own and lived down the street from her, to watch him, so she did feel as if he was in good hands. But the money. There was never enough money.
“That’s up to you, of course.”
She rubbed her arms against the cold. “So…while I help with your sister, you’re going to be doing…what? Putting this place back together?”
“Yes. I have to get it up and working, make it productive again. I’ll be honest. That’s the only way I’ll be able to care for us both—and pay you—beyond summer.”
With a sigh, Sadie wrung her hands. She’d be taking a big risk. Spending so much time alone with someone like Dawson. Letting go of the job she had now on the off chance that working as his sister’s caregiver might pan out. She’d never done anything like that before, had no idea whether she and Angela would get along.
But she had to make a change, couldn’t go on the way she was. She was falling further and further behind, and that hurt anyone who trusted her enough to give her credit. “You’re not going to perform a background check before giving me the job?”
“I’m a pretty good judge of character.”
“I knew your ex-husband was an asshole in about five seconds.”
She couldn’t help but laugh.
“I’m sure I’ll find nothing amiss,” he added. “Am I right?”
“Yes, but…you really shouldn’t take my word for it.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers, Sadie. How many people from Silver Springs are there who’d be willing to work for me?”
He had a point. The whole town was embittered. The Reeds had been well loved. Those who knew them wanted someone to pay for their deaths. And most were convinced it should be him. “Have you received any other calls on the ad?” she asked.
“I’ve had several. They all hang up as soon as they realize I’m the one who’s looking for help.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of a pair of faded jeans, which fit him so well she couldn’t help noticing. “So what do you say? Will you give it a shot? I promise you’ll get paid, at least for the next six months. Although I don’t have a lot, it’s enough to carry us through August.”
What then? She had a kid to take care of. If he couldn’t pay her, she’d have no choice except to go back to Sly. But she’d only have to go back to him sooner if she didn’t take this chance. “When would you like me to start?”
His lean, spare features softened with relief. “Is tomorrow too soon?”
She was so wet and cold now that she was beginning to shiver. “I’m a waitress over at Lolita’s Country Kitchen. I had no idea I’d get this job, still have to give two weeks’ notice.”
“Okay, but…can you come here when you don’t have to be there? I was hoping you’d be able to help me get the house ready so that I can prove I have a safe and clean environment for Angela. They’ll check before they let me take her.”
This was happening much quicker than Sadie had expected. “Sure. Okay. I get off at noon tomorrow. I’ll come over right after.”
With a nod and a wave, she trudged the rest of the way to her car. She had a new job. She’d be earning $3,000 a month—almost twice what she was earning now, which would allow her to make ends meet, stand on her own.
The prospect of maintaining her freedom brought such relief, such exhilaration. Finally, she had something to be happy about. She’d struck a deal with Dawson in spite of Sly. That single act of defiance felt good, as if she was taking another leap forward in regaining control of her life.
At the same time, she knew her ex wouldn’t be pleased. She had no idea how badly Sly might react. And, even more to the point, she’d be working in almost total isolation for a man who’d just been acquitted of a brutal double homicide.
She prayed she wasn’t letting desperation goad her into making a terrible mistake.