With her older brother MIA, the responsibility for taking in their four-year-old sister Jazz and her dog Hank falls on Sera Dobson after their mother's suddenly death. Grief stricken, Sera’s mind starts playing tricks on her, making her talk to her sister’s dog, see ghosts, and believe there is a conspiracy at work. Caring for a child is hard enough. She doesn’t need the added headache of a mental breakdown...
THE EVIL HISS of tires on wet pavement had become so much white noise. How long had they been driving? How far had they come? Too far… and not far enough.
“I can’t believe she’s gone.” Seraphina Dobson kept her trembling voice low so she didn’t wake her sleeping sister. Jazzel had been through enough. The little girl had cried for hours, her gut-wrenching sobs tearing Sera’s heart to shreds. Even now, Jazz’s little cheeks were tear-streaked and blotchy. She had her arms wrapped tightly around her brindle and white pit bull as if she’d lose him too if she let go.
Sera reached over the seat and adjusted the blanket Jazz had kicked off. The dog leveled a knowing gaze on Sera that sent a sudden quiver up her spine. She settled back in her seat with a shudder.
Connor took one hand off the steering wheel and touched her on the wrist. Flicking his gaze in her direction, he laced their fingers together and gave a quick squeeze. “Your mother was a wonderful woman.”
Pay attention to the road! Sera swallowed her words and forced a smile before turning to stare out the window at the dreary, rain-soaked fields. Connor had hated her mother. Muriel Allwood had made no secret of the fact that she didn’t care much for Connor either.
The scenery passed by in a blur. Whether from the speed Connor was driving or the tears threatening to burst from her eyes, Sera couldn’t be sure. Had it really been a year since she’d seen her mother? Jazz? Probably closer to two since she’d last seen Hank. How differently she might have done things if she’d known the last time she’d seen her mother was going to be the last time.
She stole a sideways glance at Connor. God, he was handsome. If she was being honest, she wasn’t sure she would change things. She loved Connor. Why hadn’t her mother been able to see that? Sure Sera regretted not having the wedding of her dreams, not having her family and friends there to watch her and Connor exchange vows. But she didn’t regret eloping with him.
She just hadn’t expected her mother to disown her over it.
Now Muriel was gone. How did a healthy forty-five-year-old woman drop dead of a heart attack? Thank God Jazz had been at preschool instead of home when their mother had died. The trauma that would have caused was unthinkable. Bad enough she’d been taken to school for the day, expecting her mother to pick her up as usual, only to never see her again. Now poor Jazz was an orphan — a heartsick orphan. Sera wasn’t sure what that made her. What did people call an adult child whose mother had died?
“I still can’t believe Hank didn’t come to your mother’s funeral.” Connor’s voice broke into her thoughts. “That brother of yours has always been a selfish ass.”
The mongrel gave a yelp that fell somewhere between a growl and a howl and lunged up against the back of her seat, licking Sera’s face and whining.
Sera pushed the dog’s face away. The taste of rotten meat lingered on her lips. “Gross! What the hell have you been eating?” He dove for her face again, licking and pawing. Sera smacked his nose and shoved him toward the back seat. “Stop it. Lay down. Ugh! Unruly mutt.”
“He’s not a mutt.” Jazzel’s voice was heavy with sleep. “He’s Hank.”
Despite her sadness, Sera chuckled. “Hey, Jazz. Hank, huh? He sure isn’t any better behaved.”
The dog let out a grunt that sounded a lot like “bitch.”
Sera shivered. She didn’t dislike dogs, usually got along well with animals, in fact. There was just something about this one…
Connor reached forward and flipped the heater a notch higher. Soon warmth blanketed Sera’s feet and moved upward, making her eyelids heavy.
SERA SUCKED IN a deep breath and stretched as she pushed her eyes open and tried to make sense of where she was. Soft leather beneath her cheek, the dome light overhead. Right. The car. But they were stopped and the engine was no longer running.
Peering through the side window into the darkness, she could just make out a few shapes. A rake, a lawn mower. Gardening tools. The garage? We’re home? Already? She tried to mentally pinpoint the last landmark she’d seen and couldn’t. Judging from her stiff muscles, she’d been out of it for a while. How unusual. She’d never been prone to falling asleep on long rides before. She rubbed her eyes and stretched.
“Welcome back to the living.” Connor opened his door.
“I-I don’t know what came over me,” murmured Sera.
Connor stood and the world seemed to rock from side-to-side.
“You’re tired. It’s understandable after all you’ve been through.” He pushed the back of the seat forward to rest on the steering wheel and leaned inside. “Hey, there, Jazzel, time to wake up and go inside.”
Hank growled softly.
“Enough of that, dog.” Connor stared hard into the back seat, no doubt wondering how soon he could call animal control to come take the dog away. With a snarl of his own, he reached for Jazz.
The growl got louder as the dog stood on the seat between Connor and Jazz. A narrow ridge of fur spiked upright from the back of his head to the base of his tail.
“Sera.” Connor sent her a long-suffering look. “This is unacceptable.”
He was right, of course, but Sera couldn’t seem to shake off her lethargy. She pushed the heels of her hands into her eyes and rubbed hard. Then she blinked, and some of the fuzziness cleared. Jazz stirred and gazed up at her.
“Time to get out, Jazzie,” said Sera, slurring the words. Why did her tongue feel so thick?
Jazz glanced at Connor and shrunk into the seat. “I want to get out your side,” she declared, snapping her eyes to Sera.
Throwing his hands up in disgust, Connor rolled his eyes and backed out of the car. Hank’s tail wagged as he glanced over his shoulder at Sera. Almost as if declaring a win.
Which was ridiculous, of course.
She sighed and opened her door. The world tilted some more as she stood and pushed her seat forward. “Come on, then.” She offered a reassuring smile. More than anything, Jazz needed to feel safe. She didn’t know Connor very well, so it made sense she would be shy of him.
As her baby sister clambered out the door, Hank followed on her heels, giving Sera’s hand a quick lick in passing.
Her feet dragged like cinder blocks as Sera stumbled across the garage floor. As she drew closer to the door inside, her step picked up. Finally, she was coming more fully awake. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear she’d been drugged. But of course that was a stupid notion. No one did shit like that in real life. Besides, who would have done it? The waitress at the diner where they’d had lunch? The one she’d barely touched?
She turned the handle and pushed the door open then stepped back so Jazz could go through.
“Oh, no!” snarled Connor from behind them. “That fleabag stays out here in the garage.”
“No!” shouted Jazz, stomping her foot. She stood on the threshold, hands on her hips and shot a molten glare at Connor. “Hank has to come inside.”
“Now, look here.” Connor’s knuckles whitened around the large black suitcase filled with the essentials Jazz had brought with her. “Dogs don’t belong in houses with people. They’re—” He curled his lip as he glanced at Hank. “They’re animals. Filthy, flea-bitten animals.”
Hank bared his teeth and snarled. His ears lay flat against the back of his head, and once again he positioned himself between Connor and Jazz.
“If he doesn’t come inside, then I won’t either.” Jazz stepped back into the garage. “I’m not leaving him out here.” Her crystal blue eyes held sparks of defiance that reminded Sera of their mother when she dug in her heels. A confrontation would not end well for any of them.
“Seraphina,” murmured Connor in his no-nonsense voice.
Hank’s snarl became louder, moving from warning to aggression.
No, a confrontation would end incredibly badly, especially if the damn dog ended up biting Connor.
“I’m sorry, Jazzie, but not tonight,” said Sera. She wiggled her fingers at the suitcase in her husband’s hand. When he settled it in her grasp, she steered Jazz into the house, blocking the dog. “Connor will make sure he’s nice and comfortable out here.”
“No…” The distressed wail filled the small space. “Please let him stay.”
The dog made a strangled noise that sounded like a human curse.
More heart-wrenching sobs rose, and tears cascaded over Jazz’s cheeks as Sera ushered her farther inside and pushed the door closed with her foot. “He’s Hank. He’s all I have.”
The suitcase slipped from Sera’s grasp and landed with a thud, and she dropped to her knees, pulling her sister into her arms. “That’s not true, Jazzel Dazzle. You have me. You’ll always have me.” She cradled Jazz against her, not caring that her silk blouse was already soaked through. “You’ll always have me and Connor. We’ll take care of you forever.”
She tried to draw back so she could look Jazz in the eye, but the little girl was having none of it. She averted her gaze to the right and held herself rigid, refusing to turn back.
She’s just tired. We’ll work it out in the morning. Sighing, Sera stood and captured one of Jazz’s hands. “Come along. I’ll show you to your room.”
Taking tentative tense steps, Jazz strained to look over her shoulder as Sera guided her through the kitchen and up the stairs. The garage door slammed, heralding Connor’s arrival into the house. No clickety-clack of dog nails followed, so he must have been able to secure Hank.
Jazz must have figured it out finally. Shoulders slumped, she trudged up the stairs and allowed herself to be led into the guest bedroom.
“I know this is a little generic, but the bed’s nice and soft, and the covers are warm. We can go out this weekend and get some things you like to decorate in here,” suggested Sera. “We’ll fix it up just the way you like it. It’ll be fun.”
“I guess.” Jazz turned those luminous crystal eyes on her. The hurt and accusation in them shredded Sera’s heart all over again. “Mama said I must behave. But it’s not fair Hank has to sleep outside.” She sat on the edge of the queen-sized bed. Goodness, that monster bed would swallow her whole. They’d have to do something about getting a smaller bed, maybe something fit for a princess.
“It’s been a long day. Let’s get you ready for bed.” Sera pulled back the heavy floral quilt. “I’ll make you a sandwich, and we can put a DVD in the player over there, and you can eat up here for tonight. Won’t that be fun?”
“It would be more fun if Hank could stay,” mumbled Jazz as she kicked off her shiny pink athletic shoes.
Ignoring the little girl’s plea, Sera smiled and opened the door. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“I’m not hungry,” said Jazz, shaking her head. “I just want to go to bed
Sera sighed. Jazz had been going hard for the last couple of days. Surely missing a meal one time wouldn’t hurt anything. Tomorrow… I’ll make sure she starts eating right tomorrow. “Okay, sweetie. Do you need help?”
“I just need to brush my teeth and…” Jazz lifted one shoulder and let it fall.
“Of course.” Sera crossed the room. “You have your own bathroom right through this door.” She reached inside and flicked up the switch. “My room is right next door to yours, and you just come and find me if you need anything else.”
“I will.” Jazz didn’t move, apparently waiting for Sera to leave.
She stepped out into the hallway, closing the door behind her. I can do this. I can. She’s my little sister. I have to take care of her now. God knows the real Hank can’t be counted on. She tapped the door once and walked back downstairs in search of her husband.
Connor was in his den with two martini glasses in hand. She hated martinis but somehow he’d gotten the notion they were her favorite drink, and she’d never felt comfortable correcting him. But ugh… they were doubles and each had two nasty green olives. He always insisted she eat the damn things for good luck, and the only thing she hated more than the martinis were the olives. But he’d convinced himself that the aphrodisiac quality in the olives would help them conceive the child he wanted so desperately.
“Did you get Hank all squared away?” she asked.
“Yes. Finally.” Connor grimaced. “Though I wanted to just boot his ass out onto the street.”
Sera lifted her head sharply. “But you didn’t, right?”
Sharp reptilian-cold eyes raked her. “No. Darling. I did not. Despite what you seem to think of me, I do have a heart.”
She accepted the martini he held out. “Oh, Connor, I know you have a heart. You could have let Jazz go to foster care, but you’re letting her come live with us.”
A smile painted itself across his lips. “Of course she had to come and live with us. And she’ll make the perfect big sister when we have our own child.”
Unease slithered along Sera’s nerves and her stomach seemed to jump and flop. Part of her had hoped he might put baby-making efforts on hold for a little while.
He clinked his glass against hers. “Drink up.”
Apparently waiting for a family wouldn’t go on his to-do list.
She sipped and wrinkled her nose at the strong taste but quickly covered her revulsion by lifting the glass to her lips again, praying he wouldn’t decide she needed a refill once she finished with it. As an added precaution, she set the glass far off to the side when she’d drained it.
“Come on, now…” he chided as he retrieved it and handed it back. “Don’t forget our little feel-goods here. You know what they say about the power in the olives.
“Honestly, Connor, I’m really tired…”
Her words were lost as he pressed his lips over hers in a masterful kiss. When he pushed his tongue inside, something round and soft came with it and she realized he’d taken one of her olives into his mouth and transferred it to hers.
He traced her lips then dragged kisses along her jaw. One hand pressed into the small of her back as he molded himself against her. His other hand toyed with the hem of her blouse. She swallowed the olive whole, unable to stomach chewing the damn thing.
Warmth exploded in her belly and spread outward as his hand moved upward, grazing her ribs as he located her breast and squeezed.
“I…” She sighed as he lifted her in his arms and strode to the stairway, obviously on the way to their bedroom. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing… the idea of a baby. It would give Jazz someone to focus on…
The bed seemed to embrace her as Connor laid her across it. That peculiar lethargy took over and she didn’t seem inclined to move as he undressed her and smiled.
“Beautiful…” he murmured, stepping back and staring down at her with a smile. “Just beautiful. And all mine.” His hands tore feverishly at the buttons on his dress shirt. Almost before she knew it, he was as naked as she and joining her on the bed. With a guttural moan, he settled himself on top of her and began kissing her neck insistently, nipping and biting as he pushed her legs apart.
She wanted to protest at his abruptness but the words were lost in the effort it took to form the thought. Groaning, he claimed physically what he’d just declared with his mouth.
“Mine, all mine…” Connor’s words echoed in her head. Pressure built, and heat flashed through her, and a moan burst from her throat.