For the first time, here are the last three books in the Chintz 'n China paranormal cozy mystery series, collected together into one volume.

Book Four — A Harvest of Bones:

It's harvest time in Chiqetaw, Washington; Emerald O'Brien's favorite season. But this year, nature yields a most supernatural bounty. When Em and her sweetie, Joe, stumble over a bramble-covered foundation that has remained hidden for fifty years in the lot next door, strange events begin to occur. The cat vanishes. Will o' the Wisps threaten to harm Emerald and her loved ones. And the ghost of a woman named Brigit and her beloved calico make themselves at home in the backyard. Now it's up to Em and her friends to delve into the past, reveal the secrets of the dead and lay them to rest as they ring in the autumn with a harvest of bones.

Book Five — One Hex of a Wedding:

Emerald O'Brien is about to tie the knot with her fiance Joe, but one uninvited guest to their engagement party reminds her that some ties still need to be severed. Her ex-hubby Roy can't hold his liquor--or his temper--and after brawling with Joe, he threatens to ruin their wedding. When Joe is wounded from a gunshot the next day, Roy becomes the prime suspect. Emerald knows her ex has a mean streak a mile wide but doesn't believe he'd be capable of attempted murder. And when a sinister presence starts stalking her maid of honor, Em begins to worry that her marriage has been cursed before she's even walked down the aisle...

Book Six — Holiday Spirits:

When Kip gets himself in serious trouble, a strange spirit enters the house—one that at first poses as Santa Claus. But beneath that jolly exterior, lies a dark creature from legend and lore. Join Emerald O’Brien for the holidays, as she battles both psychic turbulence as well as the demons every mother faces when her child lands in trouble with the law.

Additional books continuing the series that are not included in this set:

Ghost of a Chance (book 1)
Legend of the Jade Dragon (book 2)
Murder Under A Mystic Moon (book 3)

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For the first time, here are the first three books in the Chintz 'n China paranormal cozy mystery series, collected together into one volume.

Book One — Ghost of a Chance:

Emerald O'Brien is the owner of the Chintz 'n China Tea Room where guests are served the perfect blend of teas and tarot readings. She never set out to be a detective, but once word gets out that she can communicate with the dead, there's no turning back... When the ghost of Susan Mitchell asks for Emerald's help in convicting her own murderer, Emerald can't refuse. Along with her friends-an ex-supermodel and a cop-and her new love interest, Emerald must search for clues to put the killer behind bars, and Susan's tortured soul to rest.

Book Two — Legend of the Jade Dragon:

Tarot cards seldom lie. So when they predict chaos and bad luck for her last client of the day, Emerald gets more than a little worried. He leaves behind a charming jade statue of a dragon--but promptly dies in a hit-and-run accident outside of her shop. When other terrible things begin to plague Em and her family, the only explanation is the jade dragon. To thwart its evil spell, she'll have to follow a trail of heartache all the way back to China's Ming Dynasty--and its ancient--and sometimes harsh--mysteries.

Book Three — Murder Under A Mystic Moon:

With her teenaged daughter's birthday on the horizon and the town's autumn festival in full swing, Emerald has her hands full with party preparations and teashop specials. But a request from her friend Jimbo has her using her abilities to look into the disappearance of his friend. In the woods surrounding the Klickavail Valley enclave, Emerald senses a strange energy manifesting itself-before literally stumbling across the body of Jimbo's friend. While the police are willing to blame the death on a cougar attack, Emerald knows there's something else wandering the forest-something that resembles the Klakatat monster of legend, but may actually be a monster of a more human kind.

Additional books continuing the series that are not included in this set:

A Harvest of Bones (book 4)
One Hex of a Wedding (book 5)
Holiday Spirits (book 6)

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When Kip gets himself in serious trouble, a strange spirit enters the house—one that at first poses as Santa Claus. But beneath that jolly exterior, lies a dark creature from legend and lore. Join Emerald O’Brien for the holidays, as she battles both psychic turbulence as well as the demons every mother faces when her child lands in trouble with the law.

 

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IT WAS THREE weeks till Christmas and the first snowfall of the season was hitting hard. We usually got a dusting of snow, or a few inches, but this year it was particularly chilly and the meteorologists were talking about something going on with the jet stream and La Niña and how we'd better brace for a whopper of a storm. So Joe made sure that we were well stocked with wood for the fireplace, and we had changed out all of the windows for double-paned ones, and made certain the furnace was cleaned and working well.

It still boggled my mind how willing Joe was to tackle the chores. Being married to someone who was interested in what was going on at home-someone who wanted to be in a partnership as opposed to a dictatorship-was proving to be a new experience for me. I was still getting used to the changes that had taken place over the past year or so.

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On late Friday afternoon, I was almost finished with the last of the tree ornaments. Well, trees. We had two of them, an artificial one in the living room, which was eight feet tall, and then a large spruce in the front yard that we had to use a huge ladder to reach the top of. That one, Joe and the kids took care of. I wasn't all that comfortable creeping fifteen feet up a ladder.

As I hung two perfect satin owls on the tree, Kip came racing in.

"Mom? Mom!" He skidded to a halt as I gave him the no-running-in-the-house look.

I stared at my son, catching my breath as I realized how fast he was growing up. He was only eleven, but he had undergone a growth spurt and shot up three inches over the past few months. He was almost normal height now. He'd never been tall and I doubted he ever would be, but he was lanky and lean and looking like a gangly preteen now.

"What's shaking, kiddo?" I smiled. Kip had really blossomed since Joe and I had walked down the aisle. I hadn't seen my son this happy in a long time. Miranda-my fifteen-year-old daughter-barely batted an eyelash as Joe had moved in. But Joe meant the world to Kip, providing the father figure he had wanted for so long. Roy, his birth father, was doing better but he would never be the father who would teach Kip to be a good man. He just didn't have the dad gene. But I had to hand it to Roy. He had managed to stay in rehab for six months and though he was still battling with his alcoholism, he was trying.

"Mom, I heard something in the basement." Kip cocked his head, watching as I tried to squeeze another dozen ornaments onto the tree. I decorated like a fiend and woe be anybody who got between me and my ornament obsession.

I paused, the glittering orb suddenly heavy in my hand. "Something...or some...thing?" Life had quieted down for some time on the astral level. Either that or I had just been so busy I hadn't noticed anything going on. But neither spook nor spirit had raised its ugly head during the past six months. Even down at my tea shop-the Chintz ‘n China-the tarot readings had been easy, and life blessedly uneventful.

Slowly, I set the orb back on the coffee table, making sure it didn't roll off onto the floor. I draped my arm around Kip's shoulders and led him over to the sofa. He squirmed a little but let me sit next to him. Yeah, he was growing up, all right.

"I think...thing, Mom. There's something down there."

Damn it! I tried so hard to ward the house and keep the nasties at bay. "When did you first feel it? And is it...are you afraid?"

My son was as psychic as I was. I had taken him in hand a few years back after an astral entity had briefly possessed him and started teaching him how to ward and shield himself. It had proven to be an easy task, given that Kip took to magic readily. Miranda, on the other hand, wanted very little to do with that side of my life. Her focus was up among the stars. She wanted to be an astronomer. Or maybe an astronaut. She hadn't fully decided yet.

Kip tipped his head to the side. After a moment, he shrugged. "Kind of. It doesn't feel all that friendly and I know that whatever it is, it doesn't belong in the basement. I think there might be more than one, though. The second one feels darker. Denser?" He frowned. "Like gravy that's too thick."

Dense energy usually meant "low" energy, which meant energy vibrating at a level that could be dangerous. And that meant I'd have to go investigate and, quite possibly, kick some ghostly ass. But the ghost busting would have to wait because we were ready for dinner, and I wanted to finish the tree. As long as nobody was actively trying to scare us out of house and home, I wasn't about to let them interfere with our routine.

"Dinner!" Joe's voice rang out from the kitchen. He was a better cook than I was, though I could manage enough to fill my family's stomachs without too much complaint.

I stood and held out my hand, pulling him to his feet. "Oof, you're getting big, kiddo. How dare you grow up on me!"

"I can't wait till the other guys stop picking on me because I'm short."

"Yeah, I understand. Well, just don't get too big for your mother, okay?" I nodded toward the kitchen. "Come on. Let's go eat."

He gave me a quick hug. He'd always been short and thin, but now he was four-foot-five. I still had a few inches on him but give him another year and he'd be as tall as I was. Yes, my Kipling was growing up.

"What are your plans for the evening? You want to help me put up garland?"

He flushed. "Can we do that tomorrow? I'd like to help, but I want to go over to Sly's after dinner."

"Kip, you know how I feel about that. You were over there last night."

The flush turned into a frown. "But Mom, we're working on a project together."

I let out a long sigh. Sly, his best friend, was also a juvenile delinquent in the making. The pair had gotten in a lot of trouble through the years, bouncing off one another in ever-escalating fiascos. So far, the worst had been breaking windows in an abandoned house, and trying to be junior-size con men by shaving the fur off Sly's dog and selling it as monster fur. But I was worried that one of these days their exploits would overstep the boundaries of high jinks. Kip promised that he'd be on his best behavior, but I knew how easily my son was swayed into stupid stunts.

"Okay, but be home by eight-thirty. Not a minute later than that, you understand? And if he's alone, I want you to call me and tell me so that I know." Sly's mother didn't keep track of her kid, and I worried about the boy, but there wasn't much I could do. The one time I tried to talk to Katherine she had blown me off like a bothersome mosquito.

We entered the kitchen, where Joe was setting a roast and mashed potatoes and salad on the table. A fireman, he worked four days on, three days off at the firehouse. Tomorrow, he'd be heading back to work, but when he was home, he enjoyed taking over the cooking.

As we gathered around the table, Miranda came bouncing in.

"Hey, I can't believe I made thirty bucks today tutoring the Jameson kid in math. He's not dumb, but he hates to study." She slid into a chair.

"Got plans for your windfall?" I asked.

She laughed as Joe handed her the juice. "College fund. Scholarships are nice and I know I'll get one, but I'm not about to let anything go to chance."

With that, we began to pass around the dishes, discussing our days over the clink of forks on china. After dinner, Kip took off for Sly's house, and Miranda headed out for the library to meet with her study group.

Joe turned to me. "We have the evening free." He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.

I grinned. "I'd love to hop into bed with you, but first, I have to look into a potential problem." I told him what Kip had said.

"Are you sure?" He wrapped his arms around me and pressed his lips to mine in a slow, fiery kiss. I was thirty-eight, Joe was twenty-eight, and we hadn't moved out of the hot-for-each-other stage, even after a couple of years. Deciding the ghosts could wait, I took his hand and led him upstairs.

COLLAPSE

6

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One Hex of a Wedding
Original Edition: Berkley Prime Crime, August 2006
Second Edition: Nightqueen Enterprises, LLC, November 2016

Emerald O'Brien is about to tie the knot with her fiance Joe, but one uninvited guest to their engagement party reminds her that some ties still need to be severed. Her ex-hubby Roy can't hold his liquor--or his temper--and after brawling with Joe, he threatens to ruin their wedding. When Joe is wounded from a gunshot the next day, Roy becomes the prime suspect. Emerald knows her ex has a mean streak a mile wide but doesn't believe he'd be capable of attempted murder. And when a sinister presence starts stalking her maid of honor, Em begins to worry that her marriage has been cursed before she's even walked down the aisle...

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Chapter 1

THE PARTY WAS in full swing when Harlow grabbed the microphone and motioned for the Barry Boys to take a break from the ‘80s retro dance numbers they were playing. The strains of "Burning Down the House" fell silent as she stepped up on the stage and clapped her hands for attention, although she needn't have bothered. My ex-supermodel buddy was tall, gorgeous, with golden blond hair braided à la Bo Derek's cornrows, and the mere sight of her standing there in a gold mini-dress and red stilettos stunned the room into silence.

"Welcome, and thank you for coming. As you know, Emerald and Joe will be taking that last leap of faith and making it official. Countdown is T-minus two weeks! And we'll all be right there with them, cheering them on. Until then, let's bring down the house!"

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The crowd erupted in a roar and Jimbo, who was standing next to me, swung me up to sit on his shoulder. I grabbed hold of his shirt collar with one hand-I've never been one for high-wire acts-and he braced my legs against his chest and paraded me around the room. I waved as a volley of friendly catcalls rang out from our friends, and then he stopped in front of Joe and tossed me into my fiancé's arms. I gasped as I sailed through the air, but Joe caught me without so much as a grunt. As he set me down on the floor, I looped my arm through his.

Harlow's voice rang out again. "Be careful, Jimbo. Remember she head-butted you to the floor once before. I'm sure she can do it again." Another round of laughter from the crowd. "Okay, let's show these two just what we're made of. Get your butts in gear and bring on the music!"

Joe and I found ourselves unceremoniously pushed into the middle of the dance floor while the band began a frenzied rendition of "Whip It." He grabbed my hand and spun me out to the center, where I let go with a shimmy that brought yet another round of cheers, and then the room was filled with dancers, clapping and head-banging to the beat. As the band segued into "Don't You (Forget About Me)," by Simple Minds, I rested my head on Joe's shoulder, and he wrapped his arms around my waist as we swirled around the floor, lost in the music. Would we still be dancing like this in fifty years? I couldn't see that far ahead, but something inside told me we would.

"Babe, you look gorgeous," he whispered.

And in truth, I felt gorgeous. I had shaped up a lot over the past six months as I advanced my practice of yoga, and while I vowed never to give up my caffeine or chocolate, I had managed to cut back on the sugar. As for my outfit, I'd found the perfect lilac gauze and lace skirt for the party, thanks to Harlow and a trip to Seattle. It floated a couple inches above my knees, and I'd paired it with a plum camisole and a Victoria's Secret demi bra.

I'd also succumbed to vanity at long last, and dyed the silver out of my waist-length mass of curls. When I told Harl I intended to go to Bab's Salon down the street from my teashop, she whisked me away to Seattle. We stopped at the Gene Juarez spa for the works. As an early shower gift, she paid my way through a trim, color job, manicure, pedicure, and massage, and I didn't put up a fight. Then we hit her favorite boutiques, where I found my outfit and the perfect pair of shoes.

As Joe danced me around the floor, I glanced down at the open-toe, sling-back black pumps, still aghast both at how high the heels were and at how much they'd set my credit card back. My toenails, painted a brilliant fuchsia, stood out against the rich fabric. Suddenly overwhelmed by the whimsy of the situation, I pushed aside my worry over their cost and laughed as Joe dipped me. The back of my head almost touching the floor, I raised one leg into the air, toe pointed, in a kick that would have made Catherine Zeta-Jones proud.

After the song ended, the band took a break and everybody headed for the buffet. I rested my head on Harlow's shoulder. "Thank you," I said. "Even with my family here, I'm having so much fun. Thank God, I don't have to entertain them tonight. The buffet will take care of that. It's been crazy since they showed up."

Harl's eyes twinkled. "Relatives can be a bitch, can't they?" She threw her arm around my shoulder and wrinkled her nose. "I'm so glad you let me plan everything. Murray's knee-deep in work right now, and I love playing hostess. You shouldn't have to worry about anything."

I frowned. She'd just touched on a point that had been bothering me all day. "Harl, does Murray seem different to you lately?"

"What do you mean?" Harl cocked her head to one side.

I shook my head. "I don't know. It seems like she's been moody and distant for the past couple of weeks. I know things are okay with Jimbo, so I don't think it's anything to do with their relationship. I'm just a little worried. She doesn't seem herself lately."

Harlow shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. To be honest, I've been focused on other things. Like this party." She looked around. "Everybody seems to be having fun, don't you think? And the room looks gorgeous."

She was right, on both counts. Everyone-including my easily offended Grandma McGrady-had a smile on their face. And the banquet room at the Forest End's Diner had been decked out in full glory. A huge photograph of Joe and me blown up to poster proportions graced an easel near the buffet. Roses, both pink and red, filled vases on every table. Streamers in sparkling metallic hues of purple, green, blue, and gold spiraled from the ceiling, and the walls had stick-on hearts plastered on them.

I had a suspicion the latter was Kip's idea. He'd developed a romantic streak ever since he realized that I'd be marrying a man who would be there every day to hang out with him and treat him like his father should have, but never did. Add in the fact that I'd seen the hearts peeking out of my ten-year-old's backpack before he and Miranda headed out to help Harlow get things ready, and I was pretty sure my guess was on track.

"Speaking of Murray, where is she?" Harl asked. "I wanted her to lead the toasts."

Anna Murray, my best friend in the whole world and my maid of honor, was nowhere in sight. I glanced around, wondering where she'd disappeared to. "I don't know. Last I saw she was dancing with Jimbo. Whoever knew he could do the twist? And I'd have lost my shirt betting he wouldn't know the difference between the Hustle and a waltz." Jimbo, it turned out, was not only a biker extraordinaire, but also quite the star on the dance floor.

"You and me both," Harl said. She glanced around and a smile filtered over her face, a smile I recognized instantly. I followed her gaze to find myself staring at her husband, James. He was a lean, muscular, dark-haired man who was a good three inches shorter than Harlow. James carried himself with a quiet dignity. He was holding their daughter, Eileen, who was only a couple months shy of her first birthday. The look on his face said everything was right in his world. Harlow and Eileen were lucky ladies. He was one of the good guys.

"You, my dear, have a beautiful family," I said. "So, what's next on his agenda?" James was a photographer and was often away for several months at a time on photo shoots. A childhood sweetheart of Harl's, they'd reconnected years ago when he was assigned to photograph a layout where she was the star supermodel. They'd rekindled their romance and-aware of the fleeting life expectancy of her career-Harlow decided to get out while she was on top. She had socked away most of her money, after a brief dip into the cokehead-party lifestyle, and they were set for life.

Harl shrugged, her smile fading. "He said he's staying close to home, but I know for a fact he's being talked up by one of the big adventure magazines. Other than that, he's got a three-day shoot coming up at the end of the month for the Seattle tourism board. We're all going and turning it into a mini-vacation. But that's after your wedding, so don't worry about us skipping out on you."

Just then, I noticed Murray slip back into the room from the double doors leading to the restaurant proper. When she saw us, she motioned with her head. I didn't like the look on her face.

I touched Harl on the arm and she followed my gaze. "She looks upset."

"Yeah, she does, doesn't she? Come on, let's go see what's up."

As we made our way through the crowd, I fielded congratulations from all sides. The party was one last bash before the wedding, for my relatives, my customers, and all of our friends. The ladies who frequented my tea and china shop would have felt slighted if they weren't offered the chance to congratulate their tea-monger. Jimbo and Joe were planning a family-and-friends-only barbecue for tomorrow after my bridal shower, and Harl would be holding a formal dinner a few days before our wedding.

Murray impatiently gestured us over to the doors. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I thought you'd want to know in advance." Her gaze fastened on my face and a shiver ran up my back. Yeah, something bad was coming.

The kids were here, my family was here, and Joe was here, so there couldn't be anything wrong with any of them. A sudden sweep of panic rushed over me. "The cats? The house? Did something happen?"

"No... nothing like that," she said.

"Then what? A ghost in the attic? A murderer on the rampage? Don't tell me Cathy Sutton's decided to film my wedding for KLIK-TV?" As far-fetched as they sounded, those possibilities were all too real for my comfort.

Mur grimaced. "Worse. Okay, here's the deal-" But before she could tell me, a voice interrupted our conversation and I knew she was right. This was worse than almost anything I could dream up.

"Aren't you going to say hello or are you playing the little snob today?"

Tone on edge, slightly patronizing. Oh yes, I knew that voice only too well. It was one I despised and dreaded every time it winged its way into my ears. I held my breath, hoping that I was wrong, but in my heart I knew I wasn't. I glanced at Mur, swallowing. She gave me a sympathetic smile, and I knew that there was no help for it. I had to face my nightmare come to life.

"So, you're getting married again. My feelings are hurt; you didn't invite me to your little shindig. I had to find out through our son. But then again, you always did specialize in playing the martyr, Emerald."

I slowly turned around, gritting my teeth. Please, oh please let me be wrong. But luck was a fickle mistress. There, in the doorway behind Murray, uninvited and unwanted, stood my ex-husband. Roy. And the smirk on his face told me we were in for a bumpy ride.

* * *

WHO AM I? Well, I'm Emerald O'Brien, I'm thirty-seven years old, and I own the Chintz ‘n China Tea Room, where we sell china, tea, cookies, jams, and gift baskets, and where the local matrons meet for a quiet cup and scone amidst their busy afternoons.

I'm also the mother of two incredible children-Kipling, my ten-year-old computer whiz, magic-loving, tumbling-his-way-onto-the-gymnastics-team son, and Miranda, who's fourteen going on thirty, and who can out-stargaze any astronomer she meets. She's going to land on the moon someday. Or Mars. I'm counting on it, and I have all the confidence in the world that she won't stop there. No, if there's a warp engine to discover or a new comet heading our way, Randa will be the first in line for accolades. To round out our family, we share our house with four cats-Samantha, a gorgeous calico, and her now-grown kittens, Nebula, Nigel, and Noël. We almost lost Samantha last year, so now they are all indoor-onlys, safe from predators and interdimensional rifts in time.

And then there's Joe. Joseph Ethan Files, to be precise. My fiancé, who happens to be ten years younger than I am. We fell in love a little over a year ago, and on Halloween-my birthday-he knelt down on a dark stormy night when I was in tears from a tragic and ghostly reunion I'd just witnessed, and he asked me to marry him. I said yes. We're getting married in a couple of weeks on the summer solstice, under the fading light of the evening sky in the gazebo flower garden that used to be the haunted, bramble-infested lot next to my house.

Oh, one more note. A little one, really, all things considered. I'm the village witch here in Chiqetaw, Washington, a small town off Highway 9 in Whatcom County. I no longer try to deny the claim, because I've finally accepted my place in the town. When the universe decided to slap a cosmic badge on me and call me the new sheriff, I resisted at first, but as the Borg say in the Star Trek realm, "Resistance is futile."

I've accepted my destiny. On the astral realm I fend off-and sometimes help-otherworldly visitors. And on the mundane, I've been the downfall of a few murderers and thieves.

If there's one thing the past couple years have taught me, it's that when fate comes knocking, you either open the door or the karma police bash it in. So, when the universe delivers me a new mission, I accept it, even if it seems impossible. As my Nanna taught me, there's usually a solution for every problem. You just have to ask the right question.

* * *

HOLY HELL. I closed my eyes, repressing a groan. Roy was out to ruin my evening. I knew it as sure as I knew my own name, and I planned on nipping that little prospect in the bud. "What the hell are you doing here?"

He blinked, his expression as guileless as usual. The man had a way of looking naïve and fresh off the turnip truck. Brilliant, he had appeared the epitome of the all-American boy when I first met him, and the look had stood the test of time. Pity his actions didn't follow suit. It wasn't until later that I'd learned the truth hiding behind those wide, innocent eyes.

"Kip invited me, so I thought I'd show up and see who on earth decided to put a ring on your finger."

Damn it. I knew Kip didn't expect-or even want-me to get back together with Roy, but sometimes that little goober did a good job of mucking things up. Kipling wanted his father's approval, a dream seldom realized. I had to hand it to him, though. He persevered. And chances were, Kip didn't think he'd done anything wrong. That was part of the problem with my son. He ran headlong into situations, acting first and only thinking it through later. As a result, Kip had managed to pull off some pretty big blunders for his age.

"Kip made a mistake and you should have known better. You're an adult, so give us all a break and act like one." I leaned in so I wouldn't be overheard. "I know you, Roy. The only reason you're here is to see what havoc you can cause. You're so miserable in your own life that you want everybody else to be miserable with theirs. I'm sorry Tyra left you, but it's your own fault."

Roy's second wife-the woman I caught him cheating with when we were married-had dumped him a few months ago. She'd mysteriously fallen and had a miscarriage. Having been on the wrong end of Roy's fists a couple of times, I suspected Roy had something to do with her fall, but she wasn't pressing charges. Unlike me, she'd just quietly demanded a sizable alimony. I'd asked for child support, and forced him to pay it, but I'd only asked for a settlement of our property and money on hand when we divorced. I didn't want anything from Roy that might chain him to me any tighter than the bonds forged because of our children.

He blinked. I'd managed a direct hit. "Fine, I'll be on my best behavior," he said. "Congratulations." He pushed past us and into the room before I had a chance to stop him.

I locked eyes with Murray. "This can't end on a good note, not with him here. He drinks, Mur. A lot."

She nodded. "I'll warn Jimmy and a couple of the boys to watch out for him." As she headed off to find Jimbo, I yanked Harlow's sleeve and grimaced.

"Let's go. I've got to reach Grandma McGrady before she sees Roy."

Harl's lip twitched. "What's she going to do? Talk him to death?"

I shook my head. "You don't understand. When I told her that I caught Roy screwing his mistress in Miranda's bedroom, and that Randa walked in on them, Grandma M. swore she'd rip out his heart. And Grandma M. has never threatened to do anything that she wasn't willing to carry through. Nanna was a ripsnorter, but Grandma McGrady's a bull chasing a red cape. And Roy is on her hit list."

Even as I spoke, I could hear Grandma's voice echoing over the crowd. Kip was pleading with her about something. Great, the fireworks had begun. Stifling a snicker, Harl slipped her arm through mine. "I just hope we don't get kicked out of here. Sounds like we're needed. Let's go."

My heart sank as we hurried across the dance floor. The last thing I wanted was for the party to turn into a brawl, especially in front of my children and customers. I'd managed to keep my prior life with Roy out of the spotlight, and I wanted it to stay that way.

Steeling myself, I waded into the mix only to be greeted by the sight of Grandma McGrady shaking her finger in Roy's face, while Kip tugged on her arm. Grandma M., dressed in a peach polyester pantsuit with her gray hair coiffed into a modern bob slicked to the sides of her head, had backed Roy against the wall next to the buffet.

"Roy William Patrick O'Brien, what in the world are you thinking of, showing up here? I told you before-come near my granddaughter again and I'll throw you out on your butt." Grandma M. didn't mince words, that was for sure, and her opinion of Roy was about as low as it could get.

Roy glared at her. "Grandma McGrady-"

Oops, goof number two. Number one was showing up at all.

"Don't you call me that. I am Mrs. McGrady to you. You gave up the right to call me Grandma when you decided you couldn't keep it in your pants and went gallivanting around behind Emerald's back. We're no longer related in any manner, and I would think you'd have the decency to mind your business-"

"Great-grandma! Please, he came ‘cause I told him about it. I didn't know he wasn't supposed to show up!" Kip tugged harder at her sleeve, and she turned to him, her lips pursed.

"Kipling, you're ten years old. That's old enough to know better-"

"Everybody pipe down!" Taking a deep breath, I entered the fray. Kip was on the verge of tears and whether or not I wanted Roy here didn't matter at this point. "Kip, honey, go with Harl and find your sister. Get something to eat, okay? I want to talk to your father and to your great-grandmother."

Kip sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. He forced a smile and nodded. "Okay, Mom. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause trouble."

I tousled his hair. "Oh, sweetie, I know you didn't. You never do. Now run on. Everything will be fine." At least Roy had the good graces to keep his mouth shut while Harlow led Kip away. After they were gone, I turned back to them. "Listen to me. I want you both to knock it off."

"Emerald! When were you taught that it's all right to speak to your grandmother this way? I can't believe that you've turned into such an ill-mannered-" Grandma looked about ready to pull her smelling salts routine.

I shrugged. "I wouldn't have to if the two of you hadn't decided to ruin my party. Now, let me talk to Roy. Alone."

She seemed to be debating the wisdom of arguing but then stomped off, threading her way through the crowd, no doubt on her way to rein in the cavalry. My mother, father, and sister would be here in full force in a few minutes. I sighed and looked up at Roy.

"Okay, buster. No," I warned him, holding up my hand as he started to speak. "You keep quiet for a change. Kip obviously thought you could behave yourself here. He made the silly mistake of thinking of you as an adult, probably because you're his father and he still wants to believe you have some shred of decency in you. I hate to disappoint our son, but I'm not about to allow you to ramrod your way through my life, including this party. So you have a choice. You can stay and act civilized. Or head for the door right now. Your move, buster. Make it quick."

For the first time that I could remember, Roy hesitated, rather than immediately launching into one of his diatribes. Hmm. What was up? Maybe losing Tyra had been the last blow needed to open his eyes. Maybe her desertion broke down his belief that he was the center of the universe.

After a moment, he shrugged and said, "What the hell. I guess we can be civil one night because of the kids."

The kids. My children. And, unfortunately, his children. Against my better judgment, I assented. "Okay. But if you get out of line, out you go. Capiche?"

Roy snorted, his hands jammed in his pockets. "You're a piece of work, all right. Okay, Emerald. Truce for now?"

Still doubting my decision, I slowly nodded. "Truce. Now, mingle, stick to safe topics, and leave unfashionably early, if you would." As I headed over to Joe and Jimbo, who were scowling at us, I had the feeling that my words had thudded against the side of a brick wall.

Grandma McGrady had spilled the beans to Joe about Roy's appearance. She might not approve of our age difference-me being older than Joe the operative problem-but she knew enough to plant the seeds of discord in the right place. And Murray had probably told Jimbo. Whatever the case, both men looked miffed.

"You're letting him stay?" Joe crossed his arms and cocked his head, his way of telling me that I'd slipped into reprehensible territory.

I filled him in on Kip's mistake. "I don't want my son seeing me throw his father out on his ass. I'm going to send the kids home with my mother, or Ida. Whoever I can corral first. Then I'll deal with Roy."

Jimbo grumbled. "I think he needs a lesson in etiquette."

I put my hand on the big guy's arm. "Hold off, okay? Both you and Joe simmer down. If he gets out of hand, then yeah, you two can clean him up, but let me get the kids out of the way first."

Joe rolled his eyes, but then, with a loud sigh, kissed the top of my head. "Whatever you say, babe. Go play Mama."

The Barry Boys were cranking it up again. Irritated, I wondered what it took to have a reasonably uneventful event. I wanted to enjoy myself, not field arguments and bullies and fights. I finally managed to corner Ida in the restroom. "Can you do me a huge favor and take the kids home?"

Ida glanced at the clock. "Of course, dear, but it's early yet. Has anything happened?"

I nodded. "My ex, Roy, showed up and I'm afraid there's going to be a testosterone match before long."

She patted me on the hand. "Don't worry. I'll gather them up and scoot them home. Do you want them to stay at my place?" Ida, a retired schoolteacher who put the proper in prim and proper, had been the kids' babysitter since I first moved to Chiqetaw. Along with Horvald, she was my closest neighbor. And though Randa no longer needed a lot of supervision, Kip was still a handful.

I shook my head. "We won't be too late, so they can go right home if they want. I'd just feel better with you on call."

As we stepped back into the banquet room, the sheer weight of everybody's emotions, both good and bad, hit me. I felt like bagging it, taking the kids home myself, and curling up on the sofa with a bad movie and a bowl of popcorn. Ida must have picked up on my sudden depression, because within five minutes the kids were not only ready, but willing to go with her. I didn't know how she worked her miracles, but I wasn't going to question them.

"Did you say good-bye to your father?" I asked.

"Yeah, he said he'll call us in the morning, but he wouldn't tell us when. He just said to stick around home until he does."

That was par for the course. Just like Roy to avoid calling, then show up unannounced and expect us to wrap our schedules around him like he was some sort of god.

"We'll talk about it in the morning," I said, then hugged both of them. "Go on now. Joe and I'll be home soon." As Ida and Horvald-our other neighbor, who was courting Ida in every proper sense of the word-headed out with the kids, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least now when the fireworks flew, the kids would be out of the way. And I had an awful feeling we'd soon be witnessing a brilliant show.

I turned to find my sister, Rose, waiting patiently. Rose was short like me, but fashionably thin and she had a pinched look to her mouth that made her look older than me even though she was a year or so younger.

"Emmy, I know that it's been a long evening, but I wanted to give you this. It's a sister-present." She held out a box.

I hesitated, then accepted the narrow velvet box. Rose and I might be the same height and have the same eyes, but there all resemblances ceased, personality included. She was the good girl, I was the wild child-at least according to Grandma M. Rose was generous, but every gift she gave came with strings attached. I glanced at her and she beamed. Maybe, I thought, maybe she really meant it this time. A sister-present.

I flipped the top on the box and gasped. Nestled on a bed of red velvet rested a faceted crystal necklace. The beads were bound together by bronze fasteners, and their surfaces glistened, sparkling with rainbows. Speechless, I lifted it out of the box and held it up to the light.

Rose broke into a wide smile. "Do you like it?"

"I love it!" And I did. It was so much my style that I wondered just how she'd picked it out. Everything she'd ever bought for me had ended up at the thrift store after spending a year in the back of my closet. As I looked at her expectant face, however, I pushed away my ungenerous thoughts. Maybe Rose wanted to mend fences, bridge the gap that had kept us on opposite shores since we were young.

"Here, let me put it on for you," she said, taking the necklace as she motioned for me to turn around. I unfastened the gold chain I was already wearing and slipped it into the box as she encircled my neck with her gift. "It's called the Bride's Circlet," she said. "The owner of the shop where I bought it said he thinks it's about a hundred and fifty years old, but he wasn't positive."

An antique? I didn't dare ask how much the necklace had cost her. Rose was well-to-do, thanks to her ever-absent salesman of a husband, but I still had the feeling this had set her back a little.

"Thank you," I whispered, then impulsively turned to give her a hug. As I did, I suddenly felt dizzy and swayed. She reached for my hand until I could balance myself.

"Are you okay?" she asked, looking worried.

I nodded. "Yeah, I just felt... a little weird. Like something shifted." Wonderful-a psychic quake. I wondered what was up, but didn't have time to focus on what had caused my vertigo because she launched into an unexpected monologue.

"I saw that and I thought, that has Emerald written all over it. I know I've been aloof for a while, but I'm so glad you wanted a big wedding with family and everything-we so seldom ever get together. It occurred to me that maybe we should hold a family reunion this autumn and all meet in Seattle or even over on the shoreline, Ocean Shores or Kalaloch or one of those resort areas. So, do you like the necklace?" Without skipping a beat, she fell silent, like a wind-up toy that had suddenly run down.

Still foggy from the vertigo attack and her sudden fountain of words, I nodded and held out my arms. "How about that hug now? I love it, Rosy. I really do. You're a sweetheart."

She stiffened for a moment, then relaxed into the embrace. "Anything for my big sister's wedding. I think this one will last," she added. "I like Joe a lot better than I did Roy. Grandma M.'s having a hissy fit over his age, but she told me-in secret, so don't you say anything-that she likes him. She thinks he's a ‘properly mannered young man' and that maybe he can ‘tame Emerald into behaving like a proper lady.' "

I sputtered for a moment, then burst out laughing. Rose joined me and for the first time in years, we giggled over a secret. Might we actually be able to develop a friendship after all of these years? We'd never had any official falling out, just one hell of a fight when we were young that put an end to our developing bond. After that we were polite, we sent cards and called once in a while, but Rose and I had nothing as strong as my connection with Murray.

I was about to tell her how glad I was that she'd come when a loud shout from the other end of the room caught my attention. I broke a path through the dancers and stepped into an opening near the buffet. Roy, beer in hand, stood nose-to-chin with Joe. By the look of the scattered bottles on the table, I figured Roy had made up for lost time. He was easily three sheets to the wind. The man never could hold his liquor, a problem that had become a serious issue as our marriage had disintegrated.

"Let me tell you a little about her," Roy was saying. "She got fat on me... she let her-her-herself go and she got fat on me."

"And let me tell you once again to shut your mouth or get out." Joe hadn't seen me yet. A good four inches taller than Roy, he was glaring down at him, the look in his eyes the closest I'd ever seen to violence.

"What the hell is going on?" I said. "Roy, you dolt! Do you have to cause trouble every time you're around?"

"Where are the kids?" he asked, looking around wildly. "I wanna tell them good night."

Shoving my way between the two men, I jabbed Roy in the chest with my finger. "I sent them home. It's time for you to leave, too. Call them when you're sober." I had no intention of setting him off, but then again, that's how it had always been-never knowing when he was going to blow his stack. Life with Roy had been a series of days spent walking on eggshells. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of those times.

"Tell me to leave, will you? You're still the same bitch you were when I dumped you years ago! I should have taken the kids, you slut-" And just like that, in front of everyone, Roy took a swing at me. His open hand grazed my cheek before I realized what was happening.

Barely aware of the blow that set my ears ringing, I lost it. "You fucking bastard, you honestly think you can still get away with that? You've got a big lesson to learn, Roy, and one of these days, you're going to learn it the hard way."

Years of repressed anger fueling me, I lunged, shoving him hard. He landed on the main buffet table, right in the center of the two-tier cake shaped like a giant teapot. Before I could do or say another thing, Joe and Jimbo were bearing down on Roy, and they looked ready to kill.

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A Harvest of Bones
Original Edition: Berkley Prime Crime, December 2005
Second Edition: Nightqueen Enterprises, LLC, November 2016

It's harvest time in Chiqetaw, Washington; Emerald O'Brien's favorite season. But this year, nature yields a most supernatural bounty. When Em and her sweetie, Joe, stumble over a bramble-covered foundation that has remained hidden for fifty years in the lot next door, strange events begin to occur. The cat vanishes. Will o' the Wisps threaten to harm Emerald and her loved ones. And the ghost of a woman named Brigit and her beloved calico make themselves at home in the backyard. Now it's up to Em and her friends to delve into the past, reveal the secrets of the dead and lay them to rest as they ring in the autumn with a harvest of bones.

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Chapter 1

From Brigit's Journal:

The house is remarkably big, and there are so many things to remember. I hope I do well. Mr. Edward rather frightens me, though the Missus is nice enough.

I didn't know school would be so expensive; they were very firm on that account-they don't accept charity cases and I've no resources or family to whom I can turn.

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My only hope is to save up enough money to try again. I'm disappointed, of course, but at least this situation is better than starving. It won't be so bad. The time will pass quickly, and I'm used to the work-I've never been spoiled or without chores to do. And I'm sure that in a couple of years, I'll be able to carry out my original plans. I just have to bide my time, mind my manners, and do what is expected of me until then. At least they let me have a cat-bless them for that. My Mab is such a darling, and she'll be good company for me when I need to talk about my troubles. I learned long ago, best to turn to animals for that, they can't tell yours secrets. Even a diary isn't safe from prying eyes. But a cat will listen, and keep her silence for you.

* * *

"JEEZUZ!" AN ARGIOPE darted across my hand, off the branch I was holding. A second later, both tree limb and spider went flying. The striped orb weavers had grown fat on the last of the autumn insects; now their webs stretched in a parade through the tangle of brambles, silken strands shimmering under the feeble sunlight glinting through the buildup of clouds.

As long as they stayed where they belonged I could handle them, but we'd invaded their territory, put them on high alert, leading to more than one scare when I pulled a vine out of the way here or moved a branch there. Still, despite the thorns and arachnids and chilled sweat running down my forehead, I was having fun.

I still couldn't believe it. To my delight, Joe had actually gone and bought the lot next door to my house. Even though it resulted in weed-whacking duty for me, I was happy. When he began making noises about making things between us permanent I'd been nervous at first, not because I didn't love him, but because I'd been burned in the past-bad. But he was proving himself through his actions, and that was worth far more than a bunch of empty promises.

The early autumn had been mild with an Indian summer, but October came roaring in with a vengeance. A windstorm whipped through Chiqetaw, bringing with it gusts of sixty-five miles per hour, and rain had pounded down for days. All of western Washington was on flood watch-not unusual for this time of year, but still nerve-racking. Jimbo fretted because Goldbar Creek had crested a foot over height, flooding the back part of his woods where we'd found his friend Scar's body, and Harlow fussed about having to drive the long way into town in order to avoid a washout on the shortcut she and James usually took.

About halfway through the month, though, we finally hit a clear spot and the meteorologist promised us dry weather-give or take a few showers-just in time for my birthday, which was on Halloween. Considering that he worked at KLIK-TV, I had my doubts about the accuracy of the forecast, but hey, I could dream, couldn't I?

So when Joe suggested I take a week off to help him clear out his new property, I decided, why not? He needed the help and I needed a break. I'd just finished a grueling three-day stint at the store, catering to the Washington Tea Tasters Society during their annual conference. The event left the Chintz 'n China spotty on inventory, but with a tidy profit. So I placed enough orders for the holiday season, told Cinnamon the store was hers for the week, and promised to drop in every day or so to make sure things were running smoothly.

I stood back and took a deep breath, surveying the inroads we'd made on the mountains of blackberries. It had taken almost all day, but Joe and I'd managed to clear out the longest brambles, fighting our way through thorn and thistle. They were so thick and tall in places that we ended up pruning away at the ends until we could get close enough to clip the vines off at the ground. Then came the chore of digging them out, trying to get as many of the suckers as possible, along with the main root stem. I'd already punctured myself in a dozen places even though I was wearing heavy gardening gloves. At least I'd been smart enough to wear jeans and high-top boots, or my legs would be a bloody mess by now.

I stood back and stretched my neck to the right, wincing as the vertebrae popped. In just two months, the yoga classes I'd been taking had made a tremendous difference in my flexibility, but my body was still rebelling. I wasn't giving in, though. I'd been feeling on top of the world lately, fitting into clothes I'd tucked away three years ago, and I could make it through an afternoon of physical labor without getting winded now. Maybe one of these days I'd get a chance to really unleash my inner Lara Croft.

Joe pulled off his bandana and mopped his forehead. The thermometer read fifty-six degrees, but we were both sweating. "That's the third batch, and we aren't even halfway done," he said, gazing over the weed-strewn lot.

We'd carted away three loads of thorny blackberries.

Surrounded by thick, chest-high weeds, the lot buttressed up against my yard on the fourth, separated by a tall fence over which the brambles tenaciously crept. We discovered a driveway parallel to my own when we started cutting back the weeds, giving us the impression that perhaps a house had once stood on this lot. A few scrub trees dotted the yard, rising out of the brambles and weeds. Near the back, a tall yew-gnarled and knotted-towered out of the jungle, watching over the neighborhood, stark and solemn.

I calculated the amount of foliage left to clear before we'd be able to see the entirety of the lot. "I'm estimating at least another full day's work ahead of us," I said. "Then you can bring in a rototiller and dig up the roots."

"Sorry you agreed to help?" Joe asked, a grin on his face.

I planted a kiss on his cheek. "Nope, I may not like the spiders or the thorns, but I needed this break. Besides, this way, I won't have to hire somebody to cut these damned brambles back next year. They've been trying to creep over the fence ever since I moved in."

"I just thought that, you put in such a hard week, you might be regretting all the work this is turning out to be." He knelt down in the dirt near the leading edge of the remaining blackberries and dug away at the rich loam. "Hey, look at this. What do you suppose it is?"

I cautiously picked my way through the thorny stubble and squatted beside him. He was staring at what looked like a layer of bricks jutting out from beneath the front line of the bramble brigade.

"I don't know." The bricks continued beneath the brambles and I used a stick to pry away the vines. "Patio, maybe? Maybe we were right-maybe there was a house under all this mess. Whatever it is, it seems to go back a ways. Why don't we hack off another two or three feet of berries to get a better look?"

He picked up the machete he was using and started whacking at the vines while I gathered them up and tossed them aside. After a few minutes, more of the brick became visible. As we cleared another few feet, I began to realize that what we thought was a patio actually led to a large brick-lined hole in the ground. The afternoon light was waning, and it was difficult to tell just how big the chamber was.

Joe lay down on his stomach and stuck his head over the edge. "Hand me the flashlight."

I sorted through the tools until I found the high-beam light. I placed it in his hand and he shone it down into the inky void and scooted forward a bit. Worried that he'd scoot himself right over the edge and plunge to whatever might be waiting below, I knelt beside him and planted a hand on his butt, holding onto his belt.

He glanced over his shoulder with an evil grin. "Want to take a break?"

I smacked his ass. "Yes, but not right now. Get your nose back in there and tell me what you see."

"Yes'm." He peered back into the hole and flicked the light from side to side. After a moment, he rolled back up again, looking confused. "That's a pretty big hole down there. Basement, maybe?" He shrugged. "Do you know if there was a house on this lot? When I bought it, the lawyer didn't mention anything about one. He just told me that Mrs. Finch said go ahead and start work on it whenever I wanted, because she didn't have any use for it."

Irena Finch, nee Irena Brunswick. One of the town's economic mavens. She ran in the same circle as Harlow, but she had old money. Once in a while, she showed up in my shop. I had a suspicion she belonged to the smelling-salts crowd-those women who used fainting as a form of manipulation, and who practiced the art of the guilt-trip with as much finesse as Trump practiced the art of the deal.

I frowned. I'd lived here going on three years, but had never heard anything relating to a house on the corner. "I have no idea. Until we uncovered the driveway, I thought it was just an empty lot that had never been used. I've never had any reason to ask. What did you see?"

He shrugged. "Hard to tell. The brambles are still covering most of it. They've draped down over the sides, and it looks like the longer vines grew over the top until they formed a canopy. Whatever the case, this has been covered up for a long, long time."

Curious, I jerked my thumb, motioning for him to move over. "I want a look."

He handed me the flashlight and I stretched out, poking my head over the edge. The next thing I knew, Joe had grabbed a firm hold onto my legs. Probably a good idea, considering my track record. In the past year, my skirmishes into mayhem and murder had landed me in the hospital twice. Though, to be fair to myself, during my last adventure, it had been Joe who'd ended up in a cast.

As I flickered the light around, I began to get a feeling for the immensity of the brick-lined lair. Joe was right. It looked like a basement, and I was pretty sure I caught a glimpse of a staircase descending from the other side, but any access-if it was a set of stairs-was still obscured by brambles. I caught my breath as the scent of bonfires and decay and mold settled into my lungs. A chill raced along my spine and I suddenly longed to be in my house, warm in front of the fireplace. I scooted forward as a sound caught my attention.

"What is it?" Joe asked.

"Shush. Let me listen."

I closed my eyes and reached out with all of my senses, listening to the creeping tendrils and soft fall of soil where we'd dislodged the roots near the edge. There-a movement of the wind through the leaves, something shuffling through the foliage? A small animal stalking its prey through the bushes?

Perhaps. Then, a lone caw of a crow echoed and once again, a sound that didn't belong. Soft and low, like a woman sobbing. As I tried to pinpoint where it was coming from, a cold gust of wind shot through the tangle and slapped me in the face. A single shriek echoed in my ears, and then, all was silent.

"What the hell?" Shaken, I rolled away from the edge. I stumbled to my feet. Joe was staring at me, a bewildered look on his face.

"What happened?" He slipped an arm around my waist. "Are you okay?"

I tried to gather my wits. "Didn't you hear that? The scream?"

He shook his head. "No, I didn't hear a thing."

"But it was so loud that my ears are still ringing." How could he have missed it? Unless it had been my imagination.

"Em, honey, I didn't hear a thing except you grunting. There couldn't be anybody down there. Look, there's no way we can even think of getting into that hole without tearing ourselves to shreds on the thorns. Maybe you're just tired."

I muttered something and stared at the brambles. I was sure I heard something, but if it was as loud as it sounded, surely Joe would have heard it, too. "Well, maybe so. But I have a nasty feeling about it, and I want to go home. Now. I need a hot shower and some light."

Quizzically, he turned back to the basement of bricks, then wrapped his arms around me. "Hon, it's just the foundation of an old house. There's nobody down there. We have to clear out the brambles at some point. Don't get upset, please. With all the storms and stress, everybody's been on edge lately."

I took a deep breath. "You're probably right, but I could have sworn I heard someone scream, Joe."

"I know, I know."

"We'd better rope this off so nobody goes tripping in and breaks their neck," I said.

As Joe and I strung a rope around the area, tying it to several bushes, he glanced at the sky. "Come on, time to get inside. The light's almost gone and the temperature's dropping. The weatherman's wrong, there's another storm on the horizon."

I didn't have the heart to tell him I had the feeling that the storm had already broken and was bringing with it more than a downpour of autumn rain. In silence, we gathered up our tools and placed them under the tarp. I took one last look at the sky as we headed back to the house. All Hallows Eve was on the way, all right. I could feel it in the air.

* * *

I'M EMERALD O'BRIEN, the owner of the Chintz 'n China Tea Room, and I'm also the town witch. I gave up fighting the title long ago, because it fits, and the majority of folks in Chiqetaw use it as an endearment rather than a putdown. My two children are my life's hope and joy. Miranda's a fourteen-year-old genius who wants to go race around the stars someday, and Kipling-or Kip, as we call him-is my nine-year-old son who's forever getting himself into one scrape or another. He's a good kid, but I swear, half the silver hairs on my head are thanks to him.

Chiqetaw is a small town east of Bellingham, Washington, tucked away off Highway 9. My best friend Murray convinced me to pack my family up and move here after I divorced my ex-a nasty affair that left a deep, abiding desire for revenge in my heart. But ever since I fell in love with Joe, who's hunky and buff in every sense of the word, and who has a heart as big as his biceps, I don't give a rat's ass what Roy does. As long as he treats his children right, a task he's never proven good at, he could turn into a drag queen and head for Las Vegas, for all I care.

All in all, Chiqetaw has been good for us, even though it's proven a test to my sanity at times. About a year ago the universe took it upon itself to plant a cosmic badge on my chest and, like it or not, I found myself drafted. Whether moving to Chiqetaw was the catalyst, or I moved here because of some predetermined destiny, I don't know, but the area turned out to be a psychic powerhouse, and it swept me up in its vortex.

In the past year I've faced down astral beasties, mortal murders, monsters out of myth and legend, and broken an ancient Chinese curse. Half the time, I feel like I've been dumped into a movie produced by some maniac Holly-wood director. Think Lara Croft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Jessica Fletcher, all rolled into one.

Trouble is, I don't fit any of the uniforms. Emerald O'Brien, thirty-six-all right, almost thirty-seven-year-old tea shop owner and tarot reader. Nope, just doesn't track with the same pizzazz. Kick butt? Highly doubtful, considering my couch-potato past and my never-ending sweet tooth. Invincible heroine by birth? Not really. I've learned the hard way that my psychic powers don't imbue me with any mystical invulnerability. Detective extraordinaire? Not once have I ever expressed the desire to be a famous sleuth.

All the same, the universe handed me the role of karmic facilitator and if there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that we can't escape our fate. I tried and failed. So now when the universe delivers a dossier to my doorstep, I take a deep breath, clench my teeth, and accept the mission.

* * *

SINCE IT WAS Friday, the kids were still at school when we tromped through the backyard to my brand-new porch. Joe, along with my best friend Murray and her boyfriend Jimbo, spent the second week in September building a small enclosed porch onto the back of the house, so now we had a place to remove our muddy shoes and overcoats before entering my far-from-spotless kitchen.

I flopped down on the bench and pulled off my sneakers, setting them on the shoe-stand. As I slipped out of my windbreaker and hung it on a hook, I had the oddest feeling that someone was watching me. I glanced over my shoulder but nobody was there. Must just be the day, I thought.

"Come on, time to get washed up. Horvald's coming to dinner tonight and we're not feeding him spaghetti." I slipped through the door. Joe followed.

Joe was actually a better cook than I was. Or rather, he enjoyed it more. At first that bothered me, but pretty soon I realized what a find he was, and so when it came to company or special dinners, I let him take charge in the kitchen, contenting myself with the job of assistant.

He laughed. "No spaghetti-but first, come here."

As I looked up into his eyes, I felt myself falling again. Falling into his gaze, into his arms, into what had quickly become a deep and dangerous love. Dangerous because I hated showing any sign of vulnerability, dangerous because if something happened, this one would hurt in a way that I hadn't felt since Roy and I broke up.

He pulled me to him and planted a long, leisurely kiss on my lips. "Let's get washed up, woman!" he said, and grabbed me by the hand. We hustled upstairs to the bedroom.

"Do you have a clean shirt?" I asked.

He pulled one out of the drawer I'd cleared for him in my dresser. "Yeah, I replenished my stash yesterday. So, you want to hit the shower first? I've got to call the station and make sure everything's running smoothly."

As I stood under the steaming water, scrubbing away the dirt, my thoughts kept slipping back to the hole in the ground. Joe was probably right, it had to be the foundation or basement from an old house. Whatever it was, I didn't like the energy. I had the oddest sensation that we'd awakened something when we exposed it to the light. Even under the pulsing hot water, a line of goose bumps rippled across my arm.

I toweled off, then wrapped myself in my terrycloth bathrobe before padding back to the bedroom. Joe was flipping through one of my Time for Tea magazines. He hastily tossed it on the bed when I came in.

I grinned. "Thinking of going into competition with me, Files?"

He snorted. "Just trying to get some ideas for a birthday present."

"Aha! Caught you. Try perfume, jewelry, maybe a gift certificate for a spa day." I'd been learning to enjoy little luxuries rather than focus on the practical all the time. "Everything okay at the station?"

He nodded, looking satisfied. "Yeah, Roger's on top of stuff as usual. So far, it's been a dead shift-which is just fine with me. Means nobody's in trouble." Joe was the captain of Chiqetaw's medical rescue unit. Ultimately, he was responsible for all of the EMTs, and they couldn't have chosen a more conscientious leader. The men's safety came first and, even on his days off, he never let a shift go by without checking in.

As he stripped off his clothes I caught my breath, once again aware of how beautiful he was-my own Norse god come to sweep me away. He caught me looking and winked. Blushing, I shrugged, and he grabbed a fresh towel and headed into the shower.

I slipped onto the bench at my vanity. I'd cultivated a beauty ritual over the years, a daily pampering except on my grungiest of days when I was too tired to care. Opium dusting powder under my breasts, on my inner elbows, behind my knees. Matching lotion on arms and legs. Then deodorant, face cream, and finally, a spritz of Opium eau de toilette.

I examined my closet. What to wear on a cool autumn evening? With the changing season, I'd revamped my wardrobe. Maybe my relationship with Joe had rekindled my interest in clothing, or maybe Harlow had won and I'd turned into a girly girl, but whatever the cause, I'd begged her to go shopping with me.

She'd jumped at the chance. She was suffering from new-mother claustrophobia, and since her nanny was more reliable than Old Faithful, we spent an entire afternoon haunting the shops in Bellingham, heating up my credit card on calf-length rayon skirts and camisoles and crisp linen shirts. I'd even bought a new pair of suede knee-high boots that looked great with just about everything.

I slipped on my favorite bra and panties, shimmied into a flowing plum skirt and matching V-neck sweater, then hooked my gold chain belt around my newly resculpted waist. Yep, yoga had been good to me. I'd never be stick thin-wasn't built for it and didn't want to be. But at least I could fasten my jeans without sucking in my gut.

"I'm headed downstairs," I called into the bathroom, and Joe let out a garbled "okay."

I reached the foyer just as the front door opened and a gust of wind blew Kip and Miranda through the door. As I looked at them, I couldn't help but think about how fast they were growing up. This year, after-school activities ate up their early evenings and neither one made it home till close to six most weeknights.

Miranda was tutoring others in science and math, while being tutored in English. Kip had computer club, and he'd just started gymnastics, for which he showed a surprising aptitude. Since I was usually at the shop until six, I'd taken comfort in the fact that they were being supervised while I was at work. Miranda might be fourteen, but I'd learned the hard way that even a small, friendly town like Chiqetaw held more than its fair share of dark secrets.

"Mom! Hey, you look pretty tonight. What's the occasion?" Randa grinned at me as she dropped her backpack on the bench in the foyer and shrugged out of her coat.

I waited until they were both sans jackets and motioned them over for a hug. I managed to get in a quick peck on the cheek before they slipped away, out from under my wing. Yeah, they were growing up all right.

"How was school? Cause any trouble today?"

Randa rolled her eyes. "Come on, Mom, you've asked that every day since we started school this year. It's getting old."

"I stand corrected, but I still want an answer. What did you two do today?" I nodded toward the hall. "Come help me get dinner ready. Mr. Ledbetter's coming to dinner."

"Yay!" Kip said. He liked Horvald, who treated both of my kids like grandchildren. "What's for dinner?"

"Joe's grilling steaks on the porch."

They followed me into the kitchen, where Kip scrambled up on the counter and pulled the cookie jar down from the cupboard. I held up two fingers and he nodded, handing Miranda two cookies and taking two for himself. Then, because he knew me all too well, he handed me a couple of Oreos. I winked at him and he laughed and put the jar away.

Randa hopped on the counter, swinging her legs as she nibbled on a cookie. "I had to meet with Gunner again today. Why are you making me go? Mrs. García de Lopez says my grade is borderline. If I study, I can probably bring up it up on my own."

I tapped her knee. "No whining, Miss. You know perfectly well that, left on your own, you'd ignore it until it's too late. I know exactly what you think about the English language when it's not being used to describe a star system."

She sighed, but I saw the spark of a grin back there. I had her number and she knew it.

At the beginning of the school year, Randa had joined a brand-new program for gifted teens who went to the Chiqetaw Middle School. Within two weeks, my brilliant daughter had promptly nosedived in English, receiving a high D on the first two quizzes. Given her past performance, stellar except for English and P.E., where she'd always managed at least a C, her advisor called me. Mrs. García de Lopez suggested either letting her work it out on her own, or requesting a tutor before the problem got any worse.

Much to Randa's dismay, I'd chosen the latter. When she whined, I firmly reminded her that she'd gotten what she hoped for-more challenging schoolwork-and now that she belonged to an advanced group of students, she'd better get used to the extra effort. In all subjects, not just her favorites.

"How's Gunner working out, by the way? Is he any good?"

A flush raced up her cheeks and she ducked her head. "Yeah, though he could lighten up a bit," she mumbled. "He doesn't think anything matters except English. He's really talented. The teacher thinks he can make it as a writer."

Um hmm... the red face, the mumbling. My little girl was getting her first crush, though I wasn't about to say anything. Fourteen is a volatile age and I didn't want to embarrass her, especially in front of her brother, who would use juicy information like that to his best advantage.

I turned my attention to Kip, who launched into an explanation of the Trojan horse-he was learning Greek and Roman history this year. Half-listening, I pulled the steaks out of the fridge. Joe had placed them in a Ziploc bag, added port, ground black pepper, basil olive oil, and a little Worcestershire sauce earlier in the day, and set them to marinate. They smelled heavenly. A quick rummage through the cupboard uncovered a platter on which to arrange them after they finished grilling.

"Would you please start on the potatoes?" I asked Randa.

"How many?" she asked, without complaint. Randa had recently learned how to cook and had developed an unexpected liking for simpler tasks, especially considering how she'd kicked and screamed her way through home economics the first year.

"Enough to fill the red bowl. If you'll peel and dice them, I'll boil and mash. And then, if you would fix a salad, I'd appreciate it."

With a nod, she headed into the pantry as Joe popped into the kitchen. I winked at him. "Hurry up, Files. We're doing your work for you!"

Kip and Randa waved a friendly hello. Miranda accepted our relationship in stride. She liked Joe, and never complained about him hanging around. And Kip... Kip was overjoyed, what with having another man around the house to listen to him, throw a few balls, help with model cars. Joe won his heart when he'd challenged him at a few video games.

Joe managed to walk a fine line, never interfering with my parenting, but neither would he allow himself to be a doormat, for which I was grateful. I might have the last word with the kids, but they always treated him with respect.

While Joe and Kip grilled up the steaks, I mashed the potatoes and Randa put the finishing touches on the salad. The French bread was ready to go in the oven, and Joe would make a gravy out of the marinade. Horvald had promised to bring an apple pie from Davida's Choco-hol Bakery, so dessert was taken care of.

Promptly at seven, the doorbell rang and Horvald wandered in, pie in one hand, bouquet of mums in the other.

"The last from my garden," he said, holding out the flowers. The retired security guard had a thumb as green as my name, and kept me in freshly cut flowers all summer long. Horvald also kept an eye on us, which was comforting considering some of the mishaps we'd gone through. He was more like a grandpa than a neighbor.

Randa swept by, gracefully scooping the pie from his hands, and scurried into the kitchen. I snagged an empty vase from the living room and we followed her. As I arranged the flowers in the vase, Horvald sat back, watching.

"The four of you make quite the team, don't you?" He wasn't joking.

I glanced at Joe and Kip, who were carrying in the platter of steaks. The smell wafted ahead of them, convincing my stomach that, yes, food was on the way and the danger of starvation would be staved off for yet another day.

With a gentle nod, I returned Horvald's gaze and smiled. "Yeah, I guess we do." We gathered around the big old kitchen table where, for a moment, the only sound was that of stainless on china and the busy cutting of meat.

After we were all settled into our meal, I turned to Horvald. "How long are you going to be gone?" I asked. He and Ida-my babysitter extraordinaire and a fine retired schoolteacher-had become an item earlier in the year.

"Just for a few days. We'll be back in time for your birthday, though. Ida and I are driving down to the Salish Lodge & Spa at Snoqualmie Falls. We leave tomorrow morning, bright and early."

"Cool, we'll keep an eye on your houses for you," I said.

Joe suddenly set down his fork and turned to Horvald. "You've lived around here a long time, haven't you? You must have seen the changes that have gone on in this neighborhood."

"I've lived in Chiqetaw all my life," Horvald said. "Why?"

I immediately caught Joe's drift. "I suppose you've noticed that we're clearing out the lot next door. We haven't told many people yet, but Joe put money down on it a couple months ago and the owner said we could start in on it whenever we wanted. We're tearing out all the brambles so we can see what we have to work with."

"You thinking of putting a house there?" Horvald asked. I could sense he was brimming with questions.

Joe shrugged. "Maybe. The thing is, today we cleared out a patch in the middle of the lot and found what looks to be an old foundation. A basement of some sorts. And we found what looks like it might have been a driveway at one time. Do you know if there was ever a house on that lot?"

"Way cool!" Kip jumped up and started for the back door.

I caught him by the arm. "Just where do you think you're going, kiddo?"

He turned to look at me, his expression falling. "I guess I should've asked first, huh?"

"I guess you should have. Sit down and finish your dinner. I don't want you or Randa mucking about over there, especially after dark. You could fall in and hurt yourself. Capiche?"

After he gave me a muted "okay," I turned back to Horvald.

"So, was there a house? Something feels odd about the place." I didn't want to come out in front of the kids and say that I'd been spooked. Maybe Horvald could shed some light on the situation. Before he could answer, a crash of thunder broke through the sky and rain cascaded down in sheets. Yep, the KLIK-TV weatherman was just as effective as their star reporter, Cathy Sutton.

"So, you found the old Brunswick house? Or rather, what's left of it." Horvald mopped up the last of his gravy with a piece of French bread. He patted his stomach and politely covered his mouth as he burped. "Wonderful dinner. You know, I haven't thought about that family in years. It's a shame, everything that happened to them."

Randa and Kip leaned forward, all ears.

I glanced at them and cleared my throat. "No tragedies, I hope?" Irena Finch hadn't mentioned she ever lived on my street when she came to my shop.

He shook his head. "Not if you're talking lives lost, or anything like that. But the house... oh, she was a beauty. A mansion, three stories high, not including the basement. It towered over the other houses around here. I didn't live where I do now. In fact, your lot, my lot, everything down to the highway was woodland back then. The Brunswicks lived at the end of the road. Sixteen-nineteen Hyacinth Street. They were rich, and their son Brent was the captain of the high school football team. Irena Finch is his sister."

"Yes, she's the one selling me the lot. Or rather, her lawyer is. I've never met the woman myself. She inherited the land, I gather," Joe said.

"She married Thomas Finch, who comes from one of the oldest families in Chiqetaw. Real blueblood, you know," Horvald said, touching his nose. "Anyway, the Brunswick house burned to the ground."

"Wow," Kip said, captivated. "Did anybody die?"

I repressed a smile. My son, all right. Kipling the Morbid.

"Not that I know of," Horvald said, lowering his voice as he leaned toward Kip, whose eyes were growing wider by the minute. "But one Halloween night, a fork of lightning hit the house during a thunderstorm. The wood was dry and the rain wasn't strong enough to put out the flames. Nobody was home, and by the time the fire department got there, the blaze was totally out of control."

"Jeez," I said. "That's harsh. But at least nobody was hurt."

"No, but the fire destroyed everything they owned. They had insurance, of course, but it was still bad."

"When did it happen?" Joe asked.

Horvald squinted, thinking. "Oh, it had to have been back in 1955 or so. The Brunswicks decided not to rebuild. The twins were about twenty, I think. Brent had left for Europe about a month before the fire. I don't know whether he ever came back. Irena got married right around that time and I think Edward and Lauren Brunswick moved back to New York after their daughter's wedding. I'd forgotten all about that family until now." He turned to Joe. "So you really bought the lot?"

"Yep. I'm going to be your neighbor." Joe started clearing the table but I asked the kids to take over.

As Horvald headed for the living room, I rested one hand on his arm. "Are you sure you're telling me everything you know about the house?"

He gave me a strange look. "Why? Is something wrong?"

I glanced out the back window over at the darkened lot. Nothing was visible except the inkiness of the night and swirling leaves in the wind. "No, I guess not. No reason." But the sound of a woman crying stuck in my mind for the rest of the evening, and I couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong, and that we'd awakened something better left asleep.

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Murder Under A Mystic Moon
Original Edition: Berkley Prime Crime, January 2005
Second Edition: Nightqueen Enterprises, LLC, November 1, 2016

With her teenaged daughter's birthday on the horizon and the town's autumn festival in full swing, Emerald has her hands full with party preparations and teashop specials. But a request from her friend Jimbo has her using her abilities to look into the disappearance of his friend. In the woods surrounding the Klickavail Valley enclave, Emerald senses a strange energy manifesting itself-before literally stumbling across the body of Jimbo's friend. While the police are willing to blame the death on a cougar attack, Emerald knows there's something else wandering the forest-something that resembles the Klakatat monster of legend, but may actually be a monster of a more human kind.

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Chapter 1

THE PHONE JARRED me out of my pre-caffeine stupor as I was eating breakfast. I'd woken to find the kids already up and halfway through their chores, hustling to make it down to the Chiqetaw Recreation Center before the swimming pool got too crowded. I grabbed the receiver on the third ring, trying to maneuver my tongue around a mouthful of jelly doughnut.

"'Lo?"

"O'Brien?" Jimbo Warren's voice came booming over the line. A biker and self-proclaimed mountain man, Jimbo and I had started out as adversaries and ended up as friends. Not only had he helped me save my son from kidnappers, but he'd insisted on paying me back every penny that he'd cost me and my insurance company for throwing a brick through my living-room window. Now that we'd put the past to rest, we actually got along pretty good.

"I need your help," he said. "My buddy Scar's gone missing. I want you to find out if he's dead."

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Dead? Did he say dead? I glanced at the clock. Yep, it was eight in the morning, all right. Jimbo didn't sound like he was joking. Didn't sound drunk, either, so that eliminated any practical jokes he might come up with after a long night at Reubens. I squinted at the phone. Maybe I'd missed something along the way. I'd barely started on my espresso; the caffeine hadn't had time to hit my system yet and there was a good chance I was still running at half-speed.

I licked my fingers. "Say what? Who's Scar, and why do you think-?"

"I'm not kidding, O'Brien," Jimbo interrupted. "I need your help. Scar's my best buddy. He lives in the biker enclave out in Klickavail Valley, and he's been missing for a week. I think he's dead, and if he is, I was thinking that you might be able to contact his spirit. You owe me one."

He had me there, but did he have to pick this way to collect? Things had been going so well for a change. Nobody had died on me in months. I was thoroughly enjoying a break from the astral brigade that seemed to have set up camp on my doorstep over the past year and I had no intention of courting any more trouble. Events promised to be shaping up for a crisp, calm autumn. I wanted them to stay that way.

I grabbed a paper towel and tried to wipe the residue of raspberry jelly off my face, succeeding only in getting the paper stuck to my fingers. Exasperated, I told him to hold on for a minute and dampened the towel. Once my face and hands were reasonably clean, I said, "I'm back. So your friend's disappeared. Are you sure he's not just hiding out somewhere?"

Jimbo let out a sigh. "Do I have to beg? Okay then, please help me find out what happened to Scar. You know the cops aren't going to do anything about a missing biker, and his old lady's really upset. She's pregnant. Scar wouldn't up and leave her. I really have a bad feeling about this."

I straightened up. Jimbo never begged anybody for anything. For him to say "please" meant that he was dead serious. I glanced at the clock, gauging my list of errands for the morning before I headed down to my shop. "This morning's booked, but if you come down to the shop around noon, I'll buy you lunch and you can tell me what's going on."

"Thanks. And... O'Brien, you know I wouldn't bug you about this if I had any other choice." He hung up and I stared at the receiver, listening to the dial tone. Somewhere, out there in the universe, the cosmic scales teetered and I could feel all the balance and order I'd managed to regain over the past few months list to the side as it went crashing to the floor in a heap. I glanced out the window. The sky stretched out cloudless and sunny, but I had the feeling I'd better lash the mast and batten down the hatches. A storm was making its way to shore.

* * *

MY NAME IS Emerald O'Brien, and I own the Chintz ‘n China Tea Room. My daughter recently suggested that I change the name to the Chintz ‘n China Tea Room & Tarot Emporium, since I read the cards for so many of my customers, but I told her that sounded like a carnival sideshow. I preferred to maintain what little dignity I'd managed to scrape together over the years.

You see, I hold the dubious honor of being Chiqetaw's one and only "town witch." It wasn't my idea to dub myself that, but people say it with a smile, so I good-naturedly accept the teasing that goes along with the role. In some ways, the nickname fits, though I don't match any of the stereotypes people automatically think of when they hear the "W" word. I've never visited Stonehenge, I'm not an angst-ridden Goth girl, I don't wear a long black cape, and I'm only flaky when I haven't had my caffeine.

What I am is a thirty-six-year-old divorced mother of two wonderful children-Miranda, my star-struck daughter, and Kipling, who just happens to have been born with a strong dose of second sight. Granted, some folks think I'm a little wacko, but I don't care as long as I've got my family and friends. Over the years I've met more than my fair share of ghosties and ghoulies, both good and bad, and I know how to handle them thanks to my grandmother. Nanna taught me to work folk magic the same way that her grandmother taught her. I miss Nanna, but her spirit still pops in from time to time to give me a little advice or a helping hand when I really need her.

And even though I seem to be a beacon for the entire spirit world-the blue-light-special of the "other side" so to speak-I really didn't sign up to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer or one of the Ghostbusters. I honestly have no idea where the universe got the notion that my idea of a good time consists of hunting down astral spooks and mortal murderers. But when destiny knocks, you don't slam the door in its face.

So when the bad guys come calling, I take it for granted that I'm going to end up with bruised knees, nasty welts, torn clothing, exploding cars, virtual visions, astral journeys, the occasional haunting, and all sorts of delightful jaunts into the netherworlds. Score one for the karma police, zero for me.

In the meantime, I just try to keep my children safe, make a success of my business, and enjoy life as much as I can.

As I gathered my keys and purse, my mind lingered over Jimbo's call. In the pit of my stomach, I knew that my temporary reprieve from adventure was over. I took a deep breath, opened the door, and plunged back into the maelstrom.

* * *

CHIQETAW'S ANNUAL EARLY Autumn Breeze Celebration ran from Friday through Sunday during the second weekend in August. Designed to attract shoppers eager for end-of-the-summer bargains, the street fair encompassed most of the downtown businesses. When I opened the Chintz ‘n China Tea Room a couple of years back, I happily joined in the fun.

Since western Washington had the well-deserved reputation for being the rain capital of the Northwest, there was a definite benefit to luring customers downtown while we still had shirt-sleeve weather. In a little over a month, the rainy season would start and the sky would be overcast again for months on end.

I studied the layout of miniature gift baskets, glancing at the clock. Five minutes to ten. Almost time to open the doors. Friday mornings usually were a little slow, but with the advertised sales going on along Main Street, I expected business to pick up as the day wore on. I adjusted one of the baskets, admiring my handiwork. Brimming with honey and crackers and packets of orange spice tea, they looked so inviting that I thought I should make up a few to take to my parent's anniversary party next month. My sister Rose had roped me into helping her plan a huge affair that I knew my folks wouldn't like, but Rose was a force in her own right, and with Grandma McGrady on her side, even the devil himself wouldn't stand in her way.

Satisfied with the display, I surveyed the entire shop. The windows blossomed with color, sporting arrangements of Indian corn, giant sunflowers in tall urns, and baskets overflowing with poly-resin mushrooms, silk autumn leaves, and bottleneck gourds. The faint essence of cinnamon lingered in the air from the incense I'd burned earlier, a subtle but perfect invitation to stock up on harvest supplies. A lot of the town matrons canned their own fruit and put up preserves at this time of year; they'd be in the mood to pick up a box of spiced tea or a pumpkin-shaped teapot.

Like most small stores, half my yearly revenue came from holiday shoppers. I hadn't resorted to putting up a Christmas tree the day after Halloween, but I had caved in to some of the retail traditions, subliminal suggestion being the best of them. And, of course, I supplemented my business savvy with a few little charms for abundance that I'd tucked away in the nooks and crannies. They were the icing on the cake, adding to the general ambience of the Chintz ‘n China, and to my family's prosperity.

"Are you ready?" I asked Cinnamon, grateful I'd been able to extend her hours to fulltime. She was a good worker, and she needed the job.

Cinnamon finished arranging the last of the china plates and cups on the sideboard, then fished out a box of Irish mints and fanned them onto a silver salver, setting it on the counter. "Almost. What should I call today's menu?" She picked up the chalk, poised to write up the menu on the new floral motif board that my friend Murray had made for me.

"Let's see, what do we have? Petit fours and pound cake and raspberry tea and lemonade? Hmm... why not ‘August Garden Party'?" I gave the shop one more look-see, unlocked the front door, and propped it open to let the morning breeze drift in.

"Are the kids coming down today?" Cinnamon asked, as she finished writing up the menu. "Or is Kip waiting until Lana gets here?" My nine-year-old son had a crush on our part-time clerk that had been going on for months. Lana took it in stride, and I was grateful for her patience with him when he followed her around like a puppy dog.

I shook my head. "They went swimming this morning, and this afternoon, Kip has computer class and Miranda volunteered to clean the shed." My daughter's birthday was coming up and I knew she was trying to win me over for some new astronomical gadget. In July, she'd received the treat of her young lifetime-a long-coveted trip to Space Camp. The week-long experience had only intensified her focus on becoming an astronaut. Not quite fourteen, Randa was already studying up on colleges, intent on finding the best astronomy department in the nation.

The bells over the screen door tinkled and Margaret Files bustled in. My boyfriend's aunt, she was the only family he had around these parts. She had retired from her job as a file clerk several years ago, and had been coming for tea almost every day since I opened the shop. Like clockwork, she scheduled a tarot reading during the last weekend of each month.

"Emerald! You're looking so pretty today. That sun-dress matches the green of your eyes perfectly." She gave me a big hug and planted a petunia-pink kiss on my cheek. I discreetly wiped off the lipstick, grateful for her support. She never made any mention of the fact that Joe was ten years younger than I, and seemed genuinely happy that I was involved with her nephew. "The store looks absolutely lovely, like a painting."

I escorted her to the tearoom. "Have you heard from Joe?" It had been a long week. Joe was at a conference for EMT's in Portland, Oregon. Though he'd called before bed every night since he'd been gone, I missed the scent of his woodsy aftershave and the feel of his arms curling around me as we fell asleep.

Margaret sighed. "Of course I have. He's a good boy, Emerald, but sometimes I wish he'd cut the apron strings. He phoned last night right when I had the hand of a lifetime. I told him to call back later. It isn't every week that I get a chance to shoot the moon, and Leticia and Iris were hopping mad." She rested her hand on my arm. "You should join us, dear. Sometimes Iris isn't feeling up to snuff; she has angina, you know. The girls wouldn't mind if you sat in for her."

I knew all too well about Margaret Files and her pinochle club. On the surface, they seemed like a nice, genteel group of older women who got together every week for cards. In reality, they played cutthroat pinochle for higher stakes than I could afford, and they played to win. Since no men were invited, and tea was served instead of beer, they had decided that what they were doing wasn't gambling, but when push came to shove, their strategy made cockfighting look tame. I didn't have the stamina to keep up with them and I knew it.

"Margaret, you know I'd be outgunned in an instant. I'm about as good at gambling as I am at keeping out of trouble." I gave her a wink and she giggled.

"So tell me when my nephew is due home?" She zeroed in on the platters of cookies and cakes, then lifted a lid on one of the soup vats to give it a good sniff. Today we were serving gazpacho and chicken noodle, as well as a selection of turkey and cream cheese sandwiches.

"Sunday night. I miss him." I straightened the stack of napkins, then rearranged a platter of cookies, trying to squelch a sudden flood of longing. Joe had wormed his way into my heart, all right, and his being gone left me lonelier than I wanted to admit.

She kissed me on the cheek, then settled at a table with her food and a book. "I don't know if you realize just how sweet he is on you, my dear. He always talks about you. Now go on back to your other customers; you don't have to fuss over me. I've got my petit fours and my tea and my latest Danielle Steel novel to keep me busy. I love the juicy parts, don't you?"

I winked at her. "A woman after my own heart. Okay then, if you're comfortable, I'll talk to you in a while."

Cinnamon could handle the few customers milling in the shop, so I slipped outside to catch a breath of fresh air. Golden sunlight flickered through the trees standing guard along the sidewalk; it glinted off parked cars and reflected in the row of shop windows that lined Main Street. The city had planted them years ago, interspersing benches and flower boxes between the tall, smooth trunks. The snakebark maples provided shelter in summer for pedestrians strolling along the main boulevard, and in the winter their bare branches twinkled with hundreds of Christmas lights, shimmering along the snow-shrouded streets.

I perched on the bench directly in front of my shop and leaned back, closing my eyes to avoid looking at the white lines marking the crosswalk just a few yards away. Back in April, one of my tarot clients had met his untimely end between those two white lines, thanks to a hit-and-run driver who sped through the red light, clocking a good forty miles an hour. The image had stuck in my mind and offered up an instant replay every time I looked at the intersection.

"Yo, O'Brien, wake up!"

I knew that voice. "I'm asleep. Go away."

"Come on, wench. It's almost noon and you promised we'd talk."

I opened one eye to stare at the familiar face. Yep. There stood Jimbo Warren, decked out in full leather and studs, towering over me. I didn't see the monster he called his "Sugar" anywhere. "Where's your chopper?"

He jerked his head toward Chiqetaw's downtown parking lot and I could tell he wasn't up for small talk. I still found it difficult to believe that this giant of a man and I had started out as enemies. Over the past few months, his drunken bouts had tapered off and he'd actually taken to stopping by my shop for a bag of cookies or an honest-to-goodness cup of tea.

"As I said on the phone, I need your help."

His sober expression got me moving. I stretched, then motioned for him to follow me into the shop. As we navigated our way through the display tables, several of my customers tossed us questioning glances. I returned their looks with a gracious nod, but Jimbo added a little half-bow with a flourish, his eyes twinkling.

"Morning, ladies," he said in an easy voice. "I trust the day's being kind to you?"

Flustered, they tittered back a few daring responses and one of them-I think it was Elvira Birmingham-positively beamed. I forced myself to keep a straight face. Oh yeah, women loved bad boys all right; especially the prim and proper matrons of the town.

I led Jimbo to the table I kept reserved for shop personnel and offered him a seat. Jimbo eyed the chair. The delicate scrolled backs were aged with a green patina, and the smooth leather seats belied their strength. "You sure that bitty thing's gonna hold me up?"

"It might look dainty but the framework is solid iron; it won't bend under the weight of a sumo wrestler." I motioned for him to sit down. "I'll get us some lemonade and cake." After I brought the food and drink back to the table, I settled into my own chair "So what's going on?"

He hesitantly perched on the cushion and swigged down his lemonade. He set the glass back on the table, staring at it for a moment before speaking.

"I told you that one of my buddies has disappeared."

I nodded. "Scar, right?"

"Yeah. Scar's been hanging around Klickavail Valley for the past four years. Now he's up and vanished. Nobody's seen him for a week. He wouldn't just wander off like this, O'Brien. I know something's happened to him." His lip twitched.

A biker who'd vanished spelled "road trip" to me. Or "jailbird." "I assume you've talked to the police and to his other friends?"

Jimbo grunted. "Scar's old lady hasn't seen him since Friday-a week ago today-and that's the last time I saw him, too. Seems Traci came into town to buy groceries. Scar told her he was going to head over to my place. When she got home, the lock on their trailer was busted and the place was trashed. Every drawer had been tossed. A real mess. I went up there and looked around. Whoever did it was searching for something and I don't think they found it."

"Thieves?" I asked.

"That's just it. Nothing was missing, except Scar. As soon as Traci saw the state of their trailer, she drove over to my place, figuring Scar and I would be out fishing, but he never showed up. I followed her back to the enclave and we asked around. Clyde-he runs the joint-was the last person who talked to him. Clyde said he asked Scar if he wanted to hang out and have a beer, but Scar told him that he was heading out for my joint. Then he vanished. We went to the cops Saturday morning when he still hadn't shown up."

Jimbo must have been worried if he'd actually brought in the police. "What did they say?"

"You know how they feel about the bikers. They keep hoping the whole lot will just disappear, and since they can't raid the place without a good reason, they're not about to do anything to help find a biker gone AWOL. They were total assholes."

"I can't believe they'd just ignore the fact that he was missing." I knew several of the officers, including my best friend Murray who had made detective earlier in the year. The Chiqetaw police were usually responsive to the public.

"Oh, they took a report all right, but then that paunchy old dude-what's his name? He's the head of detectives?"

"Coughlan?"

"Yeah, thanks. Coughlan, that's it. He took one look at the report and passed it off. He said that Scar was probably off on some road trip. Traci told them about the trailer, but they ignored it. Just said that they'd ask around at the bars. Real big freakin' help, huh?"

Jimbo scratched his chin, his beard still braided in the long cornrows that I'd suggested. The first day he'd showed up with them, I realized that I had no business offering fashion tips to bikers, but he seemed to like them so I refrained from commenting other than to murmur an "Oh yes, how nice."

"Coughlan, huh? That figures." The officers I knew took complaints seriously, checking things out as much as their constrained budget and limited force allowed, but Coughlan was another matter. Murray's supervisor, he'd made her life miserable ever since she got a promotion to his unit. They'd managed to achieve a truce, but I didn't expect it to last.

He shook his head. "Remember, we're talking about the Klickavail Valley bikers. The cops suspect all sorts of trouble out there, most of it the product of their overactive imaginations. Since the enclave is housed on private property and the boys have permission to live there, and since there's no proof that anything illegal is actually going down, the cops ignore the place, hoping the group will get bored and leave. They're not gonna help any more than they're forced to. Anyway, so Scar's vanished and Traci's freakin'."

"They have a fight, maybe?"

"Nope, no way. She's pregnant and they're happy as a pair of lovebugs. Kid's due to pop in about a month. I told the cops Scar would never run out on his old lady. All he can talk about lately is having the kid and settling down. He wants two or three more, after this one." Jimbo shrugged, but I thought I glimpsed the ghost of a smile behind his worry.

Curious. I'd have thought that anybody living in the biker's enclave out there would want to remain free, unattached. "What about you? Have you ever considered getting married?" The question slipped out before I could stop myself.

Jimbo picked at the crumbs of his cake. "Me? Nah... I mean, it just ain't the life for a woman. Hell, you know me. I spend most of my time in the woods. What would I do with a wife and kids? I got my land and my house and that's enough. Heck, I was here before most of those guys even knew the valley existed. I'm about as settled as I'm ever gonna get."

Jimbo's home, from what I had seen, had been built one room at a time; he just kept adding on as he needed to and it resembled a sprawling shack more than a house, but I wasn't going to nitpick over subtleties.

He continued. "But after years on the road, some of the boys need to settle down, plant some roots. Don't mean they get kicked out of the gang, they just keep the home fires burning for the rest. Anyway, so you see, Scar wouldn't leave Traci, and he sure as hell wouldn't run off without his new Harley. He just bought that baby and she cost him over thirty grand."

"Thirty grand? For a bike?"

"Hey, it's a customized Screamin' Eagle Electra Glide. They don't come cheap."

I didn't ask how Scar had managed to get his hands on thirty thousand dollars; the less I knew about the financial dealings of Jimbo's friends, the better. But something about the situation intrigued me. I'd shed a lot of my stereotypes over the past few months. If Jimbo was right about his friend, then Scar wouldn't have up and taken off without letting somebody know. On the other hand, could the man still have a wild streak that Jimbo had overlooked?

"Has anything else happened that strikes you as suspicious?"

He glanced around to see if anybody was eavesdropping. God knows, somebody probably was. I loved my customers but a select handful were firmly ensconced in the busybody boot camp. My tearoom had become a hotspot for the tea-and-crumpet set to pick up a little gossip along with their daily "cuppa." Whenever I had a few moments, I joined them, doing my best to keep tabs on local rumors and squash anything I knew to be wrong.

"My chickens have been disappearing. Last week, something tore up my fence-that's pure barbed wire, babe, and ain't much fun to tangle with."

"Cougar? Bear maybe? This is the time of year when they pack on the weight for winter, so they'll be out and about." Chiqetaw was nestled out in the boonies off Highway 9, about fifteen miles southeast from Bellingham. Quite a few wild animals wandered in from the woods to the outskirts of town, especially out near Miner's Lake and up on Jumping Jack Ridge.

Jimbo shook his head. "I don't think so. Whatever did it trampled my carrot patch and got into the corn. I found footprints in the dirt, and O'Brien, they weren't made by any four-legged animal. They were big and barefoot. Bigger than my feet." Jimbo stretched out his leg. Yep, his boot was mighty big, at that.

He leaned in closer. "My guess is that something's tromping around Miner's Lake, something dangerous. A few of the guys in Klickavail Valley told me that they've come up short on stuff lately. Food... blankets... stuff like that. Terry-T said his sleeping bag disappeared off the clothesline a couple weeks ago. And they've been hearing strange things in the woods out there, too. Noises, and seeing shadows that shouldn't be there."

A tingle pulsed in the back of my neck and it felt as if I stood poised on the edge of a cliff. "You said you thought Scar is dead. Why?"

He sighed. "I can't prove that he's dead, but I got one of those awful feelings in my gut that I ain't ever gonna see him again. This week I've had a couple dreams about him calling my name, but in them, I could never find out where he was. And then last night, I had another dream, and he was there, and he was all bloody and holding out his hands. Scared me shitless."

"So you want me to go ghost-hunting."

"Yeah," he said with a bob of his head. "Come out to Miner's Lake and take a look around. You can see these things better than me."

I took a deep breath. The situation didn't sound good, that was for sure. "What exactly do you want me to do?"

"What I was thinking was, seeing as how you're a hoodoo woman like my Granny, maybe if he's dead, his ha'nt is hanging around and you might be able to see him or hear him."

I leaned back in my chair, contemplating the situation. Over the past few months, Jimbo and I'd had several talks about his grandma, who practiced some sort of folk magic down in the bayous of Louisiana. Jimbo firmly believed in the supernatural, he'd had several interesting experiences as a kid, then again when helping me rescue my son. And apparently, I was the only one he could talk to about the paranormal without being labeled a wacko.

I took a long swallow of my lemonade. Chances were good that Scar had just dropped out of sight for a while, but Jimbo had tweaked my curiosity. If it would set his mind at ease, I'd do it. And as he'd said, I owed him one.

"All right. How about Sunday? I can't promise results, but I'll give it a try. Do you mind if I bring my friend Murray?"

He hesitated for a second, then shrugged. "What the hell, it ain't like this is top secret. Why don't you bring some chips and beer, and I'll fry us up a chicken, fresh from the henhouse."

It was my turn to pause. "Fry a chicken? You can cook?"

Jimbo smirked. "Hey babe, I ain't just good looking, you know. My Granny taught me how to pluck a hen and skin a possum, and fry up catfish fresh from the lake. Hell, you think I could do the work I do if I lived on baloney sandwiches?"

We had more in common than I'd thought. Since my mother had worked in my father's business, I'd learned most of my skills from my Nanna, too, though I'd never once had to face skinning a possum. I shuddered, grateful for small favors.

He pushed back his chair and winked at me as he stood up. "I'll hide anything your cop-friend shouldn't see."

Oh yeah, that made me feel better. I cleared my throat. "Sounds like a plan." He stood up, but paused when I rested my hand on his. "Jimbo, what do you really think happened to Scar? You said you think something's prowling in the woods out there. Are you hiding something from me?"

He paused, his expression guarded. "You'll think I'm nuts."

I stared at him. "You do realize who you're talking to, don't you?"

He rubbed his hands together. "You know, those woods have a lot of secrets. There's some crazy-assed shit going on out there; always has been, always will. Rumors and stories float around. I laughed most of them off until lately. About two... maybe three weeks back, I start getting the feeling that I'm being watched every time I'm out there. I tell you, those woods are alive, and they seem agitated."

My psychic alarm clock began to ring. "So what do you think happened?"

He sighed, then jammed on his helmet and pulled on a pair of leather gloves. "I think the Klakatat Monster killed him and dragged him off somewhere. That's what I think." And with that, he saluted me and strode toward the door.

Klakatat monster? What the heck was that?

With visions of beasts and bogies dancing in my head, I glanced over to where Margaret sat, ostensibly reading her book. I could see her peeking over the top, her face a question mark. I leaned down next to her and gave her a gentle hug. "Jimbo's just a friend in need of a little help."

"Friend, indeed," she said. She shook her head, but looked relieved. "He's wearing enough leather to build himself a cow." I poured her another glass of iced tea, then got back to work.

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Legend of the Jade Dragon
Original Edition: May 2004, Berkley Prime Crime

Second Edition: October 2016, Nightqueen Enterprises, LLC

Tarot cards seldom lie. So when they predict chaos and bad luck for her last client of the day, Emerald gets more than a little worried. He leaves behind a charming jade statue of a dragon--but promptly dies in a hit-and-run accident outside of her shop. When other terrible things begin to plague Em and her family, the only explanation is the jade dragon. To thwart its evil spell, she'll have to follow a trail of heartache all the way back to China's Ming Dynasty--and its ancient--and sometimes harsh--mysteries.

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Chapter 1

AS I STARED at the cards, I had an overwhelming desire to fold them up and tell the man sitting opposite me to forget it. It wasn't like I needed the cash. Ever since the news broke a few months back that I'd managed to catch a two-time murderer thanks to the ghost of one of his victims, my china shop was packed with customers. The tearoom was full every afternoon, and my appointment book for tarot readings was crammed. Emerald O'Brien, I'd told myself as I looked myself in the mirror that morning, you've got it made. Life's sure turned around, so count your blessings.

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And count them I did. Every night I gave a little nod of thanks to the universe for letting me spend another day with Kip and Miranda, my peculiar and brilliant children. I loved my life, my cozy house, my thriving business, and my family of friends. I also tried to be grateful for the two men who both wanted me in their lives, but it was hard to smile at the same time I was the prize in a determined, if good-natured, rivalry. So this was what it felt like to be a love goddess.

Yep, things had turned around, all right. But as I laid out the reading for the man sitting on the opposite side of my table, I felt a flicker of apprehension. When I studied the cards, that flicker turned into a cringe. The Tower, Death, the Five of Swords. Great. Just great. A tidy prediction forecasting the breakdown of everything in this man's life, and I was the one destined to tell him about it. The phrase Please don't kill the messenger ran through my head as I tried to gauge whether or not he would be able to handle the reading. My clients trusted me to be honest, and I never fudged, regardless of what I knew they wanted to hear. Nine times out of ten, I was dead-on accurate.

The man, who had introduced himself as Daniel Barrington, came into my shop carrying a suitcase that looked like it had seen better days and wearing a black raincoat faded from too many storms. He set the suitcase down by the table and asked if I had time to read his cards. Something about him whispered worn out and, even though I didn't particularly feel like dragging out my deck, I sensed an urgency in his demeanor, so I motioned for him to sit down. As he took his seat, a flash of fear grazed my intuition. He wasn't a dangerous man, I could tell that right off, but his presence unsettled the energy in my shop. It was almost as if something had shifted when he walked through the door, and I felt as if I was standing on the edge of a cliff and the railing protecting me from the long drop had suddenly disappeared.

I shook off the feeling and studied the cards, looking up after a moment. Daniel met my gaze with a tired glint of resignation, and I could tell that he already knew things weren't hunky-dory.

"Have you ever considered taking some time off? Maybe get away for a while?" I searched for the right words. The cards only showed the most likely events to come. There was almost always the chance to change the future, but this time, I drew a blank. Everything seemed so bleak, so full of trauma and turmoil, and then the reading really disintegrated into chaos.

"I hear Bermuda is nice this time of year." I grinned. Hey, a little humor couldn't hurt, and maybe it would ease some of the tension.

He shrugged and, with a short laugh, leaned back and let out a long sigh. "You don't have to pussyfoot around the truth." His accent was clipped, British, but as faded as his overcoat. "It predicts bad luck, doesn't it?"

"I'm afraid so." Bad luck, my ass. Doomsday was more like it.

"How bad?"

What should I tell him? Some clients took every word I said as gospel. I didn't want to discourage or scare him. "Well, I don't recommend investing at this time or trying out for the X-Games. Watch out for speeding trucks and the IRS. Airplanes, too, so I guess you'd better forget that trip to Bermuda. The reading gets a little jumbled after that." It was like trying to focus on a collage; every time I looked at the cards, the images seemed to shift and change. Usually, when this happened, I wasn't supposed to interfere in whatever was going on. Karma at play, or perhaps destiny. I decided to forget my fee; the cards weren't clear, and he looked like he didn't have any money to spare. "This one's a freebie. The cards aren't being cooperative."

He tapped the table with his fingertips and cleared his throat. "Don't worry about it. I know what they're telling me. Believe me, the confusion is par for the course and bad luck, my constant companion." He reached for his raincoat and proceeded to empty the pockets as he searched for his wallet. First a balled-up handkerchief, then a Greyhound bus ticket, then his keys and a pocket-sized notebook. He finally found the calfskin trifold and pulled out two twenties, tossing them on the table. "Don't feel bad, please. I think I'm beyond help at this point." As he stood up, his coat caught on the edge of the table, and he tugged at it. The material had snagged on the hinge of one of the folding legs and, before I knew what was happening, the table tipped-cards and all-and everything spilled to the floor.

"Damn it! I'm such a klutz." Daniel knelt down to help me clean up the mess, hurriedly scooping up his keys and other items. "I'm so on edge that I've been tripping over everything. I hope I didn't break anything. If I did, I'll pay for it."

"Don't worry about it," I said. The poor man had enough to deal with, without me fussing over a pack of spilled cards. "Please, it's okay."

He hesitated, then picked up his suitcase. "Then, I'll say good-bye. I've got one final leg on my journey, and then maybe it will all be over."

"Where are you going?" I asked, mesmerized by his resignation.

He stopped at the door to give me a half-wave. "The Pacific. I have one more errand to do before I can rest. Destiny has a way of forcing you to see things through to the end, you know." Then, without another word, he turned and walked out the door.

I watched him leave. The poor man was surrounded by a nimbus of despair. What could have happened to make him so depressed? I shook my head. Most of my customers were locals who just wanted to know about their upcoming party or whether it was a good time to invest a little extra in the stock market, but sometimes tarot clients came into the shop who I never saw again, who stuck in my mind years after I met them. I sighed as I gathered up the cards. Daniel would be one of those. He would remain a mystery, and I'd probably never hear from him again.

As I reached for the last card, I saw something white peeking out from behind a nearby cabinet. I fished it out; it was the linen handkerchief from Daniel's pocket, and it was wrapped around something. It must have rolled behind the shelf when the table tipped.

Curious, I unfolded the cloth. Wrapped in the thick kerchief was a dragon, little more than four inches tall, and it was incredibly exquisite. I hesitantly turned it over in my palm. No Made in Taiwan labels here. Possibly hand-carved. As I examined the figurine closely, I realized that it had been sculpted from a single piece of jade. This was no sweatshop-produced tourist crap designed to be sold at WorldMart or the Import Emporium. No, I had the feeling it was incredibly old. What had Daniel been doing with this?

Daniel! I had to catch him before he got on the bus and disappeared. He might not remember where he'd dropped it, and the dragon looked like some sort of heirloom. I raced out the door. A throng of shoppers strolled along the sidewalks, but I managed to dart my way through them just in time to catch sight of him as he started into the crosswalk.

"Daniel! Wait! You forgot something!"

He glanced back. I held up the dragon; he clasped his hand to his mouth, nodded, and began to move in my direction. Before he could take another step, the sound of screeching tires filled the air as a beige van came hauling ass around the corner, speeding along at at least forty miles per hour. Daniel jerked, trying to get out of the way, but then it hit him, and he bounced off the hood. He flew into the air, twisting as the van shot away and disappeared down the road before anybody could even react. His suitcase popped open, and clothes scattered across the road as a hush settled over the crowd. Daniel came to rest in the middle of the crosswalk with a thud. He didn't move.

A scream from one of the passersby shattered the silence and jolted me out of my paralysis. I shoved the dragon in my pocket and raced toward Daniel as the crowd surged forward. As I pushed my way through the knot of people gathered around him, I saw that Doc Adams-our doctor-had already reached his side.

I knelt beside the doctor, and he glanced around as he felt for Daniel's pulse. "Does anybody know this man? What's his name?"

My stomach lurched as the blood began to pool, trickling from Daniel's mouth down the side of his cheek to form a puddle on the asphalt. "His name's Daniel Barrington. He was just in my shop. He forgot something, and I called him back, and the van-the van-" And then it struck me. If I'd been a moment earlier or a moment later, Daniel would still be alive, but I'd caught his attention at the exact moment that the van wheeled around the corner. I stared at the broken man lying in front of me as Doc Adams motioned to a man with a cell phone.

"Did you call 911 like I told you to?" he asked.

The man nodded.

"Okay, somebody give me their coat; he'll go into shock if we don't get him warmed up." The man who'd called the paramedics offered up his long wool duster.

Just then, we heard the high-pitched keen of sirens in the background, and a medic unit pulled up. Numb, barely able to stand, I started to back away to give them room, but a strangled gasp made me turn around. Daniel had regained consciousness. He focused his gaze on me and weakly lifted his fingers. I dropped to his side and took his hand. His breath raggedly puffed from his lungs, torn as if he couldn't catch enough air.

"The dragon... the dragon..."

I leaned down, looking in his face, making certain he could hear me. "It's safe, so please don't worry. I'll keep it for you until you get better. Now, save your strength. The paramedics are here to help you."

He blinked, pain flooding in his eyes. "The dragon! Please... you mustn't... don't... get rid-" Abruptly, he choked on his words and slumped. As I moved aside to give the medics room to work, I knew it was hopeless. A white flicker hovered above Daniel's body. I could see it as clearly as I could see Doc Adams, who was staring at me with a puzzled look. Then, like a breeze gusting past, the spirit vanished. Daniel had passed through the tunnel, and all the work the medics were doing wouldn't bring him back. Silently, I looked down at my shirt. Speckles of blood clung to it where I'd leaned close to his battered body.

Doc Adams was talking to the police; I recognized one of the officers. Deacon Wilson had worked closely with my friend Murray before she got her promotion. Deacon motioned me over and asked me what I knew about Daniel. I told him about Daniel's visit to my store and the forgotten dragon and how I'd run out to stop him and what he'd said at the end. Deacon jotted everything down. I was about to ask him if he wanted to take the dragon back to the station when one of the paramedics hailed him, and he gave me a quick nod before joining the EMT. He came back after a moment. "We've got his wallet and his identification." He looked at the dragon. "Looks like just a bauble to me. Since he asked you to keep the dragon, I'd say go ahead for now. Just don't lose it, in case we need it for some reason."

I grimaced. "If I hadn't called to him, he'd still be alive. Daniel turned around to see what I wanted, and that was just long enough for the van to clip him as it barreled through."

Deacon patted my shoulder. "Emerald, that van was doing a good forty to fifty miles per hour from what everybody says. I don't think a few seconds would have been enough for Daniel to get out of its path. Damn bastard didn't even slow down. I'm not sure if we'll be able to catch them, but we'll try. I just don't know what gets into some people."

I wiped my eyes and smiled wanly at him. Maybe Deacon was right; maybe the accident would have happened even if I hadn't called out at that moment. Maybe when Daniel said that he had to see things through to the end, he knew something was going to happen.

The paramedics gently loaded Daniel's body in the ambulance and drove away, their sirens no longer necessary. With nothing left for me to do, I headed back to the shop. Lana was dishing up soup for a pair of customers who were weighed down with bags and boxes from an active morning of shopping, and Cinnamon was restocking shelves as I came in. My shirt was spattered with blood-stains, my face tearstained, red, and puffy. Cinnamon set down the packet of water biscuits she was holding and cleared her throat. At her questioning glance, I shook my head and whispered, "My tarot client was just killed by a hit-and-run driver."

I kept a spare outfit in my office, just in case I ever needed it. I gathered up the clothes and headed into the bathroom. I closed the door behind me and leaned against it, shaking. How could this happen? One minute he was alive, the next he was dead. I closed my eyes, but images of Daniel flying through the air instantly sprang to mind, so I opened them again. I could do without the instant replay. After taking a deep breath to calm down, I looked in the mirror. Mascara streaked down my cheeks, and my lipstick was smeared. I scrubbed off my makeup and washed my face, splashing cold water against my skin. The chill helped, bracing me as I coughed. I wiped my nose and faced my reflection.

"Emerald, you sure do attract trouble," I said. My reflection shrugged along with me, green eyes flashing against my paler-than-usual skin. I absently brushed my hair back into place, binding it into a quick ponytail to corral the wayward curls as I thought about Daniel's last words. "The dragon... don't... get rid..." Well, that was a no-brainer. He wanted me to keep the dragon.

Okay, I thought. I could do that much. Deacon had given me permission, so I assumed that I wouldn't get in any trouble with the police, though I decided to check with Murray just in case. She'd always been smarter than her buddies, and now that she was a detective, I trusted her more than the average cop on the beat.

I pulled the dragon out of my pocket and examined it closely. Beautiful. Lustrous. Old, but I couldn't speculate just how old. And now Daniel was dead, and the dragon was in my keeping. A shiver ran up my spine, and once again a wave of guilt swept over me. I took another deep breath. Deacon was right; I knew he was. Daniel's death wasn't my fault. So why did I feel like I was to blame?

I flipped the statue over in my hand. Yep, I was certain it had been some sort of family heirloom. Well, I would keep Daniel's dragon until I found his next of kin and then return it to them. It was the least I could do for the unsettled man who had been so resigned to his fate. But an odd fluttering in my stomach whispered that there wouldn't be anybody to find. I had a feeling Daniel was very much alone, as alone in life as he now was in death.

The dragon stared up at me, cool eyes gazing into my own. For a moment, I could almost swear I saw them flash red, but then I blinked, and they were the pale milky jade as before. "Little guy, do you know something about Daniel that I don't?" I asked. "Do you know where I can find his family?" The dragon remained silent, but I had the uncanny feeling it heard me and understood everything I was saying.

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Ghost of A Chance
Original Edition: August 2003, Berkley Prime Crime

Second Edition: October 2016, Nightqueen Enterprises, LLC

Emerald O'Brien is the owner of the Chintz 'n China Tea Room where guests are served the perfect blend of teas and tarot readings. She never set out to be a detective, but once word gets out that she can communicate with the dead, there's no turning back... When the ghost of Susan Mitchell asks for Emerald's help in convicting her own murderer, Emerald can't refuse. Along with her friends-an ex-supermodel and a cop-and her new love interest, Emerald must search for clues to put the killer behind bars, and Susan's tortured soul to rest.

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Chapter 1

MY NAME IS Emerald O'Brien and I never set out to be a detective, but when Susan Mitchell's ghost appeared in my bedroom and told me that she'd been murdered, my life took a U-turn and I've never looked back.

Oh, sure, most people would have been scared out of their wits, but I'm used to dealing with the supernatural, so spirits and spooks don't bother me unless I figure out that my shadowy guests intend some sort of nasty surprise. My Nanna taught me how to work with my psychic abilities early on, and when the ghosts come calling, I don't freak out or hide under the covers or scream for help. I fully admit to being a coward when it comes to ill-tempered brutes and eight-legged beasties, and I have an unnatural hesitation about eating mushy bread. But show me a ghost and I can usually hold my own.

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I'm not a professional ghost-hunter, though. I own the Chintz 'n China Tea Room. Not Tea Shoppe, spelled with the cutesy extra pe, but Room. We sell fine china, go hunting for rare pieces customers ask for, serve tea and cookies all day long, and soup for lunch during the week. I also offer my services as a tarot reader.

Chiqetaw may be a small town, but I get my fair share of clients coming in. Mainly wonderful older women who want to know how the coming holidays are going to be, or if it's the right time to make that investment they were planning on. I don't answer health questions, I don't lie and tell them what they want to hear, I just read the cards as they fall, and most of my customers come back for more. They seem to find my candor refreshing, a relief to me since I'm not always as diplomatic as I probably should be.

Considering that I'm the only professional tarot reader in town, and considering my handiwork with folk magic, it's not surprising that I got labeled the "witch of the village." At least they didn't stick "old" in there-I don't quite fit any of the clichés in the movies, you know-the scary old hag out on the edge of the woods, or the lovely wise woman always ready to heal the sick. I'm thirty-six, divorced, and as far from a domestic goddess as you can get. I wouldn't know my way around a health food store if you paid me, and I have two brilliant, quirky children.

Anyway, that's where Susan Mitchell comes in. Or her ghost, rather. Given my reputation, it didn't really surprise me when she showed up at my bedside. I just wish she'd picked a better night. I was lying under the covers, fighting my usual insomnia, with a sinus headache so bad that it felt like somebody was using my face as a punching bag. I had on my sleep mask, trying to doze off in that desperate "please, oh, please, let me go to sleep" way all insomniacs have, when I heard a rustle in the corner. Samantha yowled and bounded off the bed. Somebody else was in the room.

Great. My eight-year-old wanted to get up to play Ninja Fighters or some equally violent video game and had startled the cat. Or my daughter was sneaking in from a late night's star gazing and wanted to talk over her latest discovery. I never knew when I'd find her sprawled on the roof in the middle of the night, using the telescope to spy on both Mars and the neighbors. More than once she held me breathless as she filled me in on some pretty kinky goings-on next door before I'd snapped out of it and warned her about the dangers of becoming a teenaged voyeur.

Prepared for anything-or so I thought-I sat up and pulled off the mask and there she was. Susan Mitchell. Or rather, the ghostly remains of Susan Mitchell. Of course, at the time, I didn't know that was her name. All I knew was that a short, translucent blonde was hovering about three inches above the edge of my bed. With a groan, I rolled over and closed my eyes, willing her to go away. After a moment the hairs on my arms stood at attention and I knew she was still there. Sigh. I was going to have to take care of this.

I swung my feet over the edge of the bed and felt for my slippers, all the while keeping track of the now-alert and rather excited-looking spirit. The gleam in her eye made me nervous, and I wondered if I'd have to resort to my handy-dandy middle-of-the-night exorcise-those-beasties ritual, but she pulled back as I poked my arms through the sleeves of my flannel robe. Then she folded her hands together, prayer like. Maybe it was this gesture that warmed my heart, maybe it was the grateful look on her face. Whatever the reason, I felt a little kindlier toward her and, sinus headache or not, decided to find out what she wanted.

I tucked my hands in the crook of my underarms. It was so cold I could see my breath. The Sixth Sense had it right-it did get colder when ghosts were around, but it wasn't because they were angry. I'd dealt with enough spirits to know that they seemed to coast in off the astral breeze and bring the wake of it with them.

The ghost hovered there, about two feet taller than me thanks to the fact that she was floating in midair. She seemed to be waiting for me to speak. I wasn't sure what to say. Most spirits I'd dealt with in the past hadn't been interested in the humans who shared their space. I rather preferred it that way.

After a few minutes of this standoff, I decided that she was either shy or didn't know how to speak to me. If I ever wanted to get back to sleep, I'd have to be the one to make the first move. I took a deep breath and planted myself on the foot of the bed, near enough to seem friendly, but not enough to be a target should she decide to get nasty. "Hi, I'm Emerald. You can call me Em. Who are you, and what do you want?" Not very original, but blunt and to the point.

She cocked her head, beaming. I hoped she wasn't one of those spirits who could manipulate physical objects. The last thing I needed was a hug from beyond the grave. Granted, my grandmother had done just that, after Roy blackened my eye and stomped out to go live with his bimbo. But right now I didn't feel like being the recipient of any ghostly embrace.

She seemed to be trying to speak-her mouth moved but I couldn't hear anything. I shook my head and she tried again. Finally, her eyes flashed with frustration and she glided over to my desk, which sat below the Monticello window overlooking the backyard. A pen began to vibrate and went scribbling across the stationery scattered on the top of the desk.

In scrawls that were almost illegible, the name "Susan Mitchell" covered the page. The name seemed familiar, but I couldn't place it. I looked at the ghost. "You? You're Susan Mitchell?"

She nodded. As soon as she filled another page, the pen fell to the floor. I gingerly picked up the paper and looked at the letters that danced across the paper. What I saw made my blood run cold. I glanced up, and Susan looked at me wistfully. She pointed to the note, then to me, and vanished in a puff of icy air.

I looked at the note again. The words were damning. In looping letters she had written: "I was murdered by my husband but nobody knows. Help me."

What did she expect me to do? True, I was considered the town witch, but I owned a china shop, for cripes' sake-I didn't run a detective agency. Now I was supposed to go to the police and say that Susan Mitchell's ghost had appeared by the foot of my bed, begging me to prove that her husband had killed her? I didn't know who she was or where she had lived. I didn't even know if she was telling the truth-ghosts could lie, too. And I wasn't sure why she'd shown up in my bedroom, except for the fact that I was a pretty good medium and happened to be Chiqetaw's only professional tarot reader when I wasn't busy selling Earl Grey tea and Royal Winton china. But somehow, the paper in my hand seemed to have captured the spirit's mood. Sorrow echoed through her words... sorrow and resignation. How could I ignore the plea for help? Just because she was dead didn't mean Susan Mitchell was at peace. But what could I do? And where would I start?

Feeling more awake than ever, I trundled downstairs. Nothing beat a good pot of Moroccan Mint served up in a chintzware teacup at three in the morning when you were trying to figure out how to help a ghost prove she was murdered.

* * *

MORNING CAME FAR too early. I squinted, aware in some faint corner of my mind that I had fallen asleep in the rocking chair, and found myself staring into my son's bewildered face. My eyelashes were stuck together, and there was a ball of fuzz on my lap-Nebula, one of Samantha's kittens, had curled up for a good, long snooze. I gently shooed the cat down. I had the feeling that standing up was only going to lead to pain, so I avoided it for as long as possible. In the end, I gave Kip a blurry-eyed grin as I pushed myself to my feet.

"You okay, Mom?"

I leaned down and planted a kiss on his head. "I'm fine, bud. My insomnia's been acting up, but it's nothing to worry about. Have you had breakfast yet?"

He shrugged. "Leftover pie."

"Healthy, huh?" Nature called and I made a stiff-legged dash upstairs to my bathroom.

Sun slanted through the rose window that I had the carpenter install when I bought the house a little over a year ago. The light cast a rosy hue over the pale canary of the walls, and the result always startled me as a blush of tangerine filled the room. I leaned against the vanity as I washed my face, savoring the few moments alone, not thinking of last night, not thinking of the day-just enjoying my own company. My mother had sent me a bar of jasmine-scented soap from her last trip to Hawaii, and I worked up a good lather because I loved the smell and because it felt like soft cream.

After a quick shower, I slapped on some moisturizer and braided my hair so it would dry into a mass of waves. I had stopped dyeing it when we moved to Chiqetaw and only now was getting used to seeing the long, silver strands interweave through the brunette. I tucked a bandanna around my head to keep from catching cold. Utilitarian, if not pretty.

Still blurry-eyed, I pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweater. As much as I'd rather spend the morning figuring out just what had happened last night, Saturday was cleaning day down at my shop. We opened at noon, after waging war on all the cobwebs and dust bunnies that had collected under the counters and tables throughout the week.

Kip pounded on the door. "Mom, are you sure you're okay? I grabbed a Pop-Tart, too."

I smiled. Eight years old and he didn't know how to work a cereal box yet. My little slacker. But he helped around the house and finished his chores without complaining too loudly, so I wasn't going to bitch about his lack of motor skills in the cornflakes department. I blinked at myself once, twice, then opened the door and shuffled out. My mind was beginning to race, but my body definitely lagged behind.

Kip leaned against the wall with the remains of the toaster pastry. He had a wary look in his eyes and crumbs on his face. I immediately knew something was up. I reached out and tousled his head. "Whatchyu doing, kiddo?"

He gave me one of his long looks. He was so good at them that he could reduce an adult to gibberish within five minutes. I was proud of him for it. Not every woman's son had the ability to disconcert his elders, and it seemed more useful than anything the Boy Scouts could have taught him.

"Waiting for you. Why did you stay up all night?" Did I detect a hint of concern in his voice? Could Kip have possibly seen the ghost, too? My son was far too psychic for his own good at such a young age. I'd been trying to help him learn how to control and cope with it for the past year. Though his talent had been apparent from birth, it had blossomed out since Roy left us. A lot of things had blossomed since then.

He took a deep breath and plunged ahead with what I was afraid I was going to hear. "Mom, I thought I felt something in the house last night. I had a nightmare."

Nightmare? Kip hadn't had nightmares for over a year. "What was it about, kiddo?"

"Some lady, I guess. I dunno. I woke up in the middle of the night and was worried about you. I thought maybe something was going to hurt you." He swallowed the last of the Pop-Tart and wiped his hands on his jeans.

Normally, when Kip was upset in the middle of the night he would come tapping gently on my door and creep under the covers next to me. That he hadn't done so this time told me that he'd been too frightened to leave the security of his own bed. I didn't want him to worry, didn't want to talk about the ghost until I'd figured out what was going on. "Well, I look all right this morning, don't I? It was probably a dream, my Kipling."

He gave me a penetrating glance, and I knew he knew I was hiding something, but I also knew he knew I wasn't going to tell him until and unless I was good and ready. He nodded and bolted for the stairs, stopping long enough to turn at the railing. "Okay. Can I go over to Sly's?"

Sly was his current best friend and a little con artist, but Kip had enough brains to keep from getting involved in whatever trouble that kid had cooked up. I waved him away. "Wear your jacket-it's cold out. And don't forget that I want you at the store in an hour. Be there." One of the kids' chores was to help out on Saturday mornings. He took the stairs two at a time and vanished out the front door with a slam.

On the way to the kitchen, I stopped by the rocker and picked up the sheets of paper on which my ghostly visitor had written. The moment I touched them, I felt a wave of sadness overwhelm me. I looked at the writing. No, it hadn't been a dream. Susan's presence had been real enough. "I was murdered by my husband but nobody knows. Help me." How the hell was I supposed to deal with this? I didn't even know who she was.

I cracked eggs into the skillet and started toasting the bread, while Miranda grabbed the paper from the front porch. She gave me a quick peck on the cheek as I slid our breakfast onto the ruby crystal dishes I had so coveted for years. Roy had thought them too old-fashioned. After he left, I didn't care what he thought. In fact, I had decided to find a set of Cranberry Spode to go with them. The contrast would be startling and eye-catching.

Miranda poured the juice. With a bite of runny yolk on toast, I opened the paper and glanced through the news. There, down at the bottom of the page, an article caught my attention. The headline read, "Local Romance Writer Found Dead in Home."

Susan Walker Mitchell died Thursday evening after slipping into a diabetic coma. Mae Tailor, the Mitchells' housekeeper, found Ms. Mitchell unconscious upon returning to the residence at about 4:00 P.M. on Thursday afternoon. Blood tests confirmed the presence of both alcohol and Valium in Ms. Mitchell's system, a dangerous combination. However, doctors attribute her death to hypoglycemic coma, brought on by a failure to eat after taking her morning insulin.

"The levels of Valium and alcohol were high, but not within life-threatening ranges," Dr. Johansen, the Mitchells' family physician, stated. "Mrs. Mitchell has been admitted to the hospital four times in the past year for low-blood-sugar seizures... unfortunately, no one was with her this time to prevent her from slipping into a coma." Ms. Mitchell died without regaining consciousness.

Ms. Mitchell was well loved for her work in the community theater, but she was best known for her career as a romance novelist. She produced twenty-nine books over the past fifteen years, including the best-selling Love on Clancy Lane. Her books are read worldwide.

Survived by her husband, Walter Mitchell, Chiqetaw, and a daughter, Diana Mitchell, Seattle, Ms. Mitchell will be greatly missed.

I stopped reading. Of course. Susan Mitchell. The romance novelist. I remembered seeing her mentioned in the paper before, though I'd never met her. The photograph beside the obituary was most definitely that of my ghostly visitor.

"Is everything okay, Mom?" Oh no, not her, too. It was bad enough that Kip had sensed something, but Miranda spooked too easily, and I didn't want her involved in any part of this yet.

I squelched the urge to blurt out the truth. "No... no... nothing wrong. Go ahead and run along. Remember to be at the store by ten."

She grabbed her pack and raced out the door to catch the bus. Grabbing a pen and a steno book I always keep handy near the phone, I ripped the article out of the paper and tucked everything in my purse.

So my ghost was real, or had been. Diabetic coma? Murder? With a dozen thoughts reeling through my head, I made my way out to the car and pulled out of the driveway. I had a lot to do before opening the shop. The only trouble was, I didn't know where to begin.

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