Chapter Twelve

Ellie and her father arrived before her uncle, so they waited inside the truck. Ellie sipped at her Coke and tried to imagine Mr. Spencer as a younger man. Was he the young man in the picture with a young, pregnant Miss Ruby? It was possible. If so, what had happened to them? They’d looked so happy in the photo.

A black Volkswagen Passat pulled up and they watched Jim Thompson, Esquire, get out and walk into his office. Ellie chugged the rest of her Coke, knowing it would be warm when she returned.

“You ready, honey?” Her dad still looked nervous. She was feeling pretty anxious herself so she just nodded.

Uncle Jim was talking with his assistant when they entered. “You can take a seat in my office and I’ll be in shortly,” he said, winking at Ellie. She smiled in response.

Ellie and her father settled into chairs arranged in front of a huge, antique desk. Ellie’s hand brushed the aged wood, tracing the grain with her fingers. She’d found the desk for her uncle at an estate sale a few years back and immediately called him. He’d bought it on the spot, sight unseen, based solely on her recommendation. She had no idea what he’d done with the desk he’d had before, a practical piece without the beauty, charm, and character of the one in front of her now. Sold it? Given it away since he’d found something better? Her father drummed his fingers on the edge of his chair, fidgeting again, and suddenly she thought she understood why.

“Dad, Mom told you that I know about Miss Ruby being my biological grandmother, right?” He nodded and looked away. “Are you worried that I’ll love you and Mom less if I know more about her and Mr. Spencer?”

Her father sighed, but the way his shoulders relaxed told her enough. “It’s new territory and I’m a worrywart, I’ll admit, but I think I’m more concerned that you’ve been through so much lately and I don’t want you feeling overwhelmed.” He paused. “And I guess I’m also concerned that whatever we learn today could change everything we have.” He trailed off and she could tell by the way he kept swallowing that he was struggling for control.

She reached over to take his strong, calloused hand in her own. “Dad, no matter what, I love you and Mom more than anyone or anything else in the world. Nothing can ever take your places in my heart and in my life. Love isn’t genetic, Dad. It’s relational. You two are my parents. End of story.” She squeezed his hand and felt him return the gesture. When Uncle Jim entered the room a few seconds later, she didn’t let go.

Just as his hands had lent her strength and security as a little girl, they did the same now. She held on just as tightly.

Jim Thompson dropped a thick manila folder on his desk and settled into his chair with a sigh. He folded his hands on top of the folder and looked at each of them. “Dave, Ellie, thanks for agreeing to come here. I wanted to do this formally, as Murphy and Ruby would have wanted, I think. I’ll cut to the chase and tell you what most people want to know the most. Yes, there’s money coming to you, Ellie. A lot of money. When Ruby Jefferson died, you became a millionaire.”

Ellie’s mouth dropped open and she turned to her father with wide eyes. He smiled and lifted his free hand to gently tap her chin. “We are not a fish, as your mother likes to say.” His reaction brought a touch of normality back to her and she responded to it by sticking her tongue out at him. His lips twitched up.

Clasping her father’s hand between both of her own, Ellie turned back to her uncle. “Okay, so I’m a millionaire. That’ll have to process for a while. Is—was—Mr. Spencer my biological grandfather?”

Her uncle nodded. “He was, yes.” Ruby and Murphy were married for twenty years, but Madison’s death drove a wedge between the two of them that evidently could not be overcome. I was friends with both of them at the time and it was difficult to watch. Her grief was overwhelming and she couldn’t understand when Murphy went back to work as if nothing had happened. There were a lot of arguments. He confided in me. He said that he could feel the distance between them increase each day when he left to go to the bookstore. She filed for divorce the day after the first anniversary of Maddie’s death.”

“Did you know my mother, too?”

“A little. As well as any middle-aged man can relate to a teenager who is unrelated to him, I suppose. She wasn’t around much whenever I was in their home.”

“How did you meet them?”

“My former business partner was their lawyer. When he retired, they decided to give me their business. Most of my library came from Spencer’s Antiquities so we already had a good rapport.” He shrugged. “They invited me to their annual Christmas Eve party that same year and the rest is history.”

“Did you have anything to do with them choosing your brother and his wife as adoptive parents?” Ellie inwardly cringed that she’d asked such an obviously stupid question, but she wanted to know for sure.

Uncle Jim’s eyes softened. “I did, Ellie, and I’ll go to my grave feeling as if the entire purpose of my being on this earth was so that I could do that one beautiful thing—find you a new home with very loving parents who’d wanted children for years.”

She fought back tears as she looked from her uncle into the loving eyes of her father and back again. “Thank you for that, Uncle Jim. I couldn’t have asked for a better life.” She squeezed her father’s hand again and finally let it go. “Mr. Spencer stayed in town, obviously. Did Miss Ruby, too?”

“They owned a huge estate about twenty miles from the city. It’s yours now, by the way. We can drive out and take a look any time you want. Miss Ruby stayed in the house and Murphy moved into an apartment over the bookstore. A few years later he married a widow with a young son. He adopted the boy and from what I could tell they had a good family life. His adopted son grew up to become a paramedic and lives in Springfield. He visits often, though, on his days off. I’m sure he’ll take good care of his mom now that Murphy’s gone.”

“They’re okay financially? When you finish liquidating the store, they’ll be okay?”

“Oh yes. Murphy did quite well and they were careful with their money. He wouldn’t take a cent from your grandmother in the divorce. It was her inheritance from her parents and he wouldn’t budge even though she offered to share it with him.”

“He was always very kind to me,” Ellie said. “Always wanting to know if there was a book I was particularly interested in finding. I suspect that he only charged me a fraction of the cost for the ones he sold to me.” She turned to her father again. “Thanks, Dad, for taking me on those monthly excursions to town. It was your way of sharing me with my grandfather, wasn’t it?”

Her father nodded. “Your mom made sure Miss Ruby stayed up-to-date with you and I made sure Murphy did. It was a small way to say thanks for the best gift we’d ever been given.”

Ellie laid her hand on her father’s arm and squeezed gently. “To me, too, Dad.”

Uncle Jim opened the file in front of him and then slid it over to her. “That’s a listing of assets and unpaid bills. Only the utilities and such. She always paid off her credit cards each month. The woman loved to shop online.”

Ellie tugged on her father’s arm to draw him closer so he could read along with her. She had a feeling she’d need his grounding council as she made decisions in the future. They read down the list of properties Miss Ruby owned and the income, in the case of a few apartment buildings, and expenses from each. Then there were the stocks, bonds, and other investments. Finally, a brief listing of bills left to pay. “Why aren’t you listed on here, Uncle Jim? You’re working and you should also be paid.”

“Ruby already paid me. She was always very generous, too.”

“Maybe so, but you’re still working so I want to see your billing listed on here in the next update. I don’t want to take advantage of your services. Please bill me?”

He studied her for a few moments and then nodded his head once. “It’ll still be a few more weeks before everything’s settled. Ads have to be run in papers for any creditors to file if there are any outstanding debts we didn’t know about. Stuff like that. But as soon as we can, we’ll finalize things and get the money transferred to you.” He glanced at his watch. “Do you have any more questions for me?”

Ellie looked at her father who shook his head. She couldn’t think of any more either. “I think we’re good. For now. And I know how to reach you if I think of something.”

Her uncle rose from his chair and they followed suit. “You certainly do.” He smiled as he walked around the desk to give each of them a hug. “Now don’t go spending any money just yet. Wait until you have it before you start buying jets and motor boats.” He winked at her again.

“HA! No worries. I have no plans to buy anything right now. Mom and Dad are spoiling me at home. I have everything I need.” She turned to kiss her uncle’s cheek. “Thanks, Uncle Jim. For everything.”

“You’re welcome, Ellie girl. Drive safe, you two.” He ushered them out of the office and walked them to the door. “I’ll be in touch.”

Ellie clicked the seat belt around her and checked her phone. Nothing from Stella. “Shall we go see the new dog now?”

Her father glanced at his watch. “We’re a few minutes late, so I suppose we should get moving.” He reached out to touch her shoulder. “Are you okay? That was a lot to deal with, wasn’t it?”

“I’m fine, Dad. Yeah, it’s kind of overwhelming, but thankfully I have some time before I have to learn to handle all of it. And I’m planning on asking you and Mom a lot of questions as I make decisions. You’ll probably get sick of it.”

He chuckled. “I guess we’ll get used to it eventually, right? It’ll be a new kind of normal.”

She nodded. “Now about the new dog. What’s his name?”

“Jackson. Randy says he was born on June 25, 2009, the day Michael Jackson died. They named him in tribute to one of their favorite artists.”

“Oh, well that’s nice. I love some of his songs.”

“I liked the Jackson Five.”

“Me too, Dad. You sure listened to them enough when I was growing up. Do you think Randy would mind if we shortened it to Jack occasionally?”

“Nope. Don’t think he’d mind at all since he also told me that’s what they call him.”

A few moments later, they pulled into the parking lot of Ace Hardware and saw Murphy’s great-grandson sitting quietly beside his owner. Randy waved and approached the truck. Jackson stayed where he was, but his eyes and ears were trained on Randy and he came immediately when he was called.

Ellie bent down to scratch the soft, black ears. Brown, intelligent eyes lifted to her own and she smiled. “I hope you like Cocker Spaniels, Jackson. Misty is a little wound-up at times, but I imagine she’ll have to work hard to keep up with you.” He licked her hand, wagging his tail. “You sure look like Murphy.”

“Yeah, and he’s dependable, just like his great-grandfather. I’m glad you guys are taking him. We’re retiring from the dog breeding and training business. I figure forty years is long enough.”

“Oh, are you staying on the farm?”

“For now. We’re still young enough to work it just fine. Eventually our son will take over.”

“Well, happy retirement, Randy!” Ellie’s father said. “Maybe now you’ll have time to come out for dinner sometime.”

“We’d love to. Now, do you think Jack will work for you?”

“He’s ready to work with my cattle?”

“Yep. He’s had a refresher course, but he didn’t need it. Remembered it all like it was yesterday.”

“Then we’ll take him.” Ellie’s father pulled out his wallet but Randy put his hand on his arm to stop him.

“He’s a gift, Dave. To you and your family. You guys have been wonderful customers from the beginning. I’m glad he’ll have a great home. We had him neutered last year, but knew it would have to be a special family for us to be willing to part with him. Don’t let him roam for a few weeks, until he gets used to being a part of your family. Then he should be good to go.”

“Well now. That’s quite a gift, Randy. Thank you!” Ellie’s father shook Randy’s hand. “You know we’ll take good care of him.”

Randy nodded and then bent down and tousled the fur on top of Jackson’s head. “You be a good dog and I’ll see you soon.” He clipped the lead onto his collar and handed the leash to Ellie’s father. “This is another reason we’re retiring. It’s getting harder and harder to part with them. They take a little bit of me with them when they go.”

“Are you sure you want to part with him? We can look elsewhere.”

“I’m sure. We’re keeping the last one. And as you know, one Border Collie has more energy than any two people combined. She’ll keep us busy well enough. Thanks for asking.” He shook her father’s hand and then turned to Ellie. “I heard the story of how Murphy led your rescuers to you when you had the wreck. I’m glad he helped to save your life. Dogs understand love. Much better than we do, I sometimes think. It’s good to see you on your feet. You take care of yourself.” He stepped back, nodded goodbye to each of them, and then turned and left.

Jackson whined once, but didn’t pull at the lead. They watched Randy drive away. When Ellie’s father turned toward the back of the truck, and the cage for Jackson, Ellie stopped him. “Dad, do you think we could just let him ride in the cab with us? Like Murphy used to?”

Her father paused, and the two of them locked eyes.

She missed Murphy, more than she ever thought she would. They’d bought him as a pup when she was thirteen and she’d talked her parents into allowing him to sleep inside the house at night instead of in the barn with the animals. He had free roam of the house, after he was house-trained, and was always curled up next to her in her bed whenever she woke up. He’d been her protector and her friend when everyone else was untrustworthy. He’d known all her secrets.

When she’d left for college it had been hard on him. He’d kept circling the house, looking for her, and whining. She’d had to come home for a few weekends so that he knew she was okay. When she graduated, she would’ve taken him with her in an instant. But Murphy belonged on the farm.

Until he’d managed to somehow find her at the time of the accident. She wished she could remember how.

Maybe her father read what was on her face and in her eyes. Maybe he was thinking about Murphy too. But for whatever reason, he turned and led the dog to the cab of the truck. “Up,” he said, holding the door open. Jackson leapt into the truck and was waiting for her—tail wagging, tongue lolling out, smile on his face—when Ellie climbed inside.

 

Chapter Eleven

The next morning Stella walked into Ellie’s room around ten a.m. “Morning, Stella. How are you feeling?”

Stella’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m scared. What if the whole pregnancy is like this? How am I supposed to work when I have no energy and I can’t keep food down?”

Ellie patted her bed and Stella sat down next to her. “Maybe you should go see a doctor.” She rubbed her friend’s back gently.

“I called and they said the next available appointment is in two weeks. I could be dead of starvation by then.”

“Let’s drive in and you can go to Urgent Care. There has to be something they can give you to help.”

“You can’t drive. And I’m so shaky I’m not sure I should try either.”

Ellie’s father cleared his throat from the hallway. “I wasn’t sneaking up on you ladies, but I was just coming to tell Rosie that I have to run some errands and to see if you two wanted to come along. If you need to be dropped off at the clinic I can do that.”

Stella’s face brightened. “That would be wonderful. If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Not at all. I’ll go bring the truck around.”

“That’s so nice of him.” Stella turned to Ellie. “Is Rosie your middle name?”

“It’s actually Rose, but he’s called me Rosie for as long as I can remember. It’s so old-fashioned sounding, but I love it.” She smiled and shrugged. “Although Elanor is also old-fashioned so I guess they go together.”

“It’s classy sounding. So much better than Stella. Do you know how many times someone’s asked me if I’ve gotten my groove back yet?” Stella rolled her eyes. “I’m going to go brush my teeth. I’ll meet you downstairs.” She left the room and Ellie grabbed Misty to put her outside.

Ellie watched her father pull up with a dog crate latched in the bed of the truck. She arched her brows and pointed to the crate.

“I need another working dog, sweetie. We’ll always miss old Murphy, but I need the help with the heifers.”

Ellie nodded, feeling ridiculous for questioning him. Of course he needed the help. Murphy wasn’t just a dog; he had been an important part of the cattle operation. “Of course you do, Dad. I’m sorry. Are we meeting Randy in town?”

“Yep. At Ace’s. And the dog we’re getting is a great-grandson of Murphy’s. Good stock.”

Ellie was actually looking forward to seeing him. Wait. “Dog? Didn’t you mean to say ‘pup’?”

“Nope. This late in the summer the pups are all sold. I got lucky though. They bought a new stud last year so they were glad to make a deal on this dog. He’s been the stud for the past five years and they retired him. Randy’s been putting him through a refresher course on herding.” The squeak of the storm door opening and closing announced that Stella had arrived. “And now honey, you know we aren’t mad at you or anything, but the next time you decide to take the dog with you, please let us know a little beforehand. I could have had another dog ready before you took Murphy with you the day of the accident.”

“Ready to go,” Stella announced as she stopped beside the pickup. “I’ll get in back.” She reached for the door handle but Ellie grabbed it first.

“No, no. You take front. The seats are more comfortable and it’ll be less bouncy.”

Stella paled. “Bouncy? Ugh. I’ll take you up on your offer. I don’t think I could take bouncy right now.

Ellie climbed into the back seat of the extended cab truck. Stella hauled herself up into the front seat. They chatted about something, but Ellie didn’t pay attention. What did he mean about taking Murphy the day of the accident? Her memories were fuzzy about that day and many of the days following the wreck, but Ellie had gone to an antique show down in Branson that weekend and had been on her way back to her apartment when it happened. Did she go to the farm and just couldn’t remember?

Her father dropped Stella off at the clinic and Ellie moved into the front seat. “Dad, you said something about me taking Murphy from the farm?’

“Yeah, but it’s okay honey. Don’t worry about it.”

“Thanks Dad, but did you see me at the farm that day?”

He kept his eyes on the road, but his bushy eyebrows twitched the way they always did whenever he was worried.

“Dad, there are gaps in my memories from that day, so I’m just wondering when I would have picked Murphy up.”

He nodded. “We weren’t home during the afternoon so we think that’s when you came out. If you would’ve told us, we definitely would’ve stayed home. Both of us feel guilty about that. We think that if we were there, you would’ve probably stayed for supper and then you wouldn’t have had that wreck.”

“Aw, Dad,” she touched his arm, “You guys shouldn’t feel that way. It was an accident, pure and simple, and I do remember wanting to get back to Misty so I probably wouldn’t have stayed.” Something occurred to her. “Wait, Dad, what time did you and Mom get home?”

“About 4:30, I think. Why?”

“Because I didn’t leave Branson until after 5. I’d lost track of time and was still browsing when the store closed.”

“But . . . Murphy?”

Ellie closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. “I . . . I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know how he could’ve been with me in the car, but I have flashbacks and he’s in them. When did you notice he was missing?”

“Well, he wasn’t on the porch when we got home. He didn’t come running to the truck for a treat either. We even honked the horn in case he hadn’t heard us pull up. Nothing.”

“That’s so weird.” She looked at her father. “Could you show me where I went off the road sometime soon?”

“If you really want me to, then I guess I can.” He held up a finger. “That’s another thing. The paramedics who rescued you said a Border Collie led them to you. They described Murphy perfectly, right down to his collar. They even said he was limping on a bloody paw.”

Ellie’s eyes burned as tears filled her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered, “He’d shown it to me, too, and there was nothing I could do for him.”

“You really think he was there?”

“He looked and acted like Murphy. But I don’t remember picking him up from the farm. And Dad, I would never take him without asking you first. I knew he was a working dog.”

“Then . . .”

“I can’t explain it, Dad. I didn’t take Murphy, but he somehow turned up when I needed him.”

“That’s, I don’t know, incredible? Is that the right word?” He scratched his head.

“Yeah, I think that’s the perfect word.”

“How would he even have known where to find you?”

Ellie shrugged. “I think it was a miracle.”

“Miracle. Now that’s the perfect word.” He pulled her close for a one-armed hug and quickly released her. But not before she noticed the tears in his eyes.

* * *

Since they weren’t sure how long Stella would be at the walk-in clinic, they decided to visit their favorite bookstore in Springfield, Missouri. They parked about half a block away and were mildly surprised to see people gathered around tables in front of Spencer’s Antiquated Books as they approached.

“Do you think he’s having a sale?” Dear old Mr. Spencer had never held a sale in the thirty-five years he’d been running the bookstore. Occasionally he would discount a book to move it along, but since he dealt in hard-to-find acquisitions he tended to hold onto them until the right buyer came along. He was also known to call his repeat customers if he found something he thought they would like. Ellie’s heart sank as she read the sign posted in the store window: Inventory Liquidation and Estate Sale. “Oh no, Dad.”

Her father sighed. “He said he planned to retire at the end of the year.”

“I wonder what happened.”

“Let’s go inside.” He held the door open for Ellie to enter first.

“STOP RIGHT THERE!” A male voice bellowed. Ellie and her father jumped out of the way as a man raced out the door. “DIDN’T I JUST TELL YOU ALL THAT I HAVE CAMERAS MOUNTED OUTSIDE SO I CAN WATCH YOU? GIVE ME THAT!” The irate man, Ellie realized, was her Uncle Jim, the lawyer she wanted to speak with about Miss Ruby’s will. “I saw you start to earmark that page,” he continued, taking a book away from another man, “and I will call the police if you don’t leave this instant.” The would-be-book-defiler gave her uncle a withering look and turned on his heel to walk away. “Oh no you don’t,” her uncle muttered as he grabbed another book tucked under the retreating man’s arm. “That’s it! This sale is over for today. If you want to buy what you have in your hands, go to the register. If not, put it down and leave. Right now!”

Several people complained loudly until Jim the Lawyer turned their way, eyes blazing and hands on hips, while the rest grasped their books tighter and hurried to get in the checkout line.

Uncle Jim shook his head. “Do either of you know that man I ran off?”

Ellie glanced at her father, who shook his head. “No, we’ve never met him before.” She studied her uncle’s frown. “Do you know him, Uncle Jim?”

He nodded. “He’s a multi-millionaire.”

“No!” Ellie searched the sidewalks and nearby cars to see if he was still nearby. “Why would he try to damage, or steal for that matter, a book he could easily afford to buy?”

“He’s got a reputation for that kind of thing. He’s known for finding the cheapest way of getting what he wants and occasionally it’s landed him in trouble. Nothing that his lawyers haven’t been able to handle, so far, but I refused to be one of them and he’s not likely to forget that.”

“We’re witnesses, if you need us.” Her father put his hand on Jim’s shoulder.

“Thanks, but I’ve also got it on camera.”

“What a sleaze ball!” Ellie clamped a hand over her mouth, not intending to say that out loud, but her father and uncle just chuckled.

“I think I’d better move those tables, and one of those cameras, inside before we open again.”

“What books did he have?” Ellie cocked her head, trying to read the title off the spine of the book in her uncle’s hand. He gave it to her. “Is it worth very much?” She passed the book to her father.

“About three hundred.” Jim’s hands swept the air, indicating the book-laden tables. “None of these out here are worth much more than that. Murphy kept impeccable records of each acquisition. But I’ve got yours behind the counter, just like I promised.”

“Like you promised? When?” It had been months since Ellie had last spoken to her uncle.

“I called you last night to tell you about the sale but no one answered so I left a message. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“We didn’t get the message.” Her father turned to her. “He must have called while we were outside hunting for you, Ellie.”

“Why were you hunting for Ellie?” Uncle Jim looked alarmed.

“It’s a long story. I fell asleep under the willow tree and didn’t get home until the middle of the night.” She waved her hand dismissively. “But Mr. Spencer’s first name was Murphy?” She glanced at the name on the door. “It says ‘Rupert Spencer’ on there.”

“His middle name was Murphy and that’s what we, who were his closest friends, called him.”

“I’m sorry.” She paused. “Do you know what happened?”

“Haven’t heard yet. But I handled his business affairs and had the will so here I am.” He stroked his chin. “I’ll get back to you on Miss Ruby’s will when I’m done tonight. I haven’t forgotten you, just been swamped. It’s somehow fitting that Ruby and Murphy died the same day. They’re together again now.”

“Miss Ruby and Mr. Spencer had a past together?” Ellie’s head swam. She leaned back against the door frame.

Jim eyed her for a moment before he motioned them inside. “Come in and sit down, you two. We’ll talk after I close up the shop.”

Ellie and her father entered the small bookstore and he put an arm around her shoulder. “Are you okay, Rosie? You look a little pale.”

She smiled up at him. “I’m all right, Dad. I’m just feeling a little light-headed.”

“Do you want me to get you something? A sandwich maybe? Or a Dr. Pepper?”

“Oh, a Dr. Pepper would be awesome! Would you mind?”

“Of course not. There’s a deli right next door. Be right back, sweetie.” He kissed the top of her head and hurried away.

Ellie hobbled over to an upholstered chair and collapsed into it. Another Murphy? She remembered the old bookseller with fondness. How many times had they come to this store through the years? And he’d always waited on them with genuine interest and kindness. He’d also been extremely generous. If she had an item she was interested in, he always managed to find it. And at a very reasonable price, too. She realized with a pang that she would honestly miss him, and not just because of the books, but because of his gentility. She supposed it could have been just a persona he’d put on whenever they stopped by, but shook her head at the thought. No, she could tell when someone was being obsequious. Mr. Spencer was not one of those people.

Her father returned with a bottle of Coke. “Sorry, Rosie, but they don’t sell Dr. Pepper. Will this suffice?”

“Dad, it’s Coke with pure cane sugar. I love this stuff! So, yes, it’s perfectly sufficient.” He smiled, but still seemed a little tense. “Are you okay?

“Well,” he glanced around, “I’m not so sure we’re supposed to have that in here. I maybe shouldn’t have brought it in.”

“Oh, well I won’t open it until Uncle Jim says I can. How’s that?” He nodded. “Why don’t you pull that chair over and join me.” He did as she suggested but still couldn’t seem to relax. His hands stayed busy either smoothing imaginary wrinkles from his jeans or literally twiddling his thumbs. What was up with him? Did he think she wanted him to buy her a lot of these books? A buzzing sound interrupted her thoughts and she dug her phone out of her purse.

“It’s a text message from Stella. She’s dehydrated and they’re giving her an IV. She’ll be there at least another hour.”

“I’m glad they can help her. She doesn’t have any fat stores to use up. Morning sickness, right?”

“You’re a good guesser, Dad. She just found out.”

“Does Reid know yet?”

She shook her head. “She wants to tell him in person.” He didn’t respond, just studied her. “I’m fine, Dad. All of that is way over.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“So seeing him again hasn’t changed anything?”

“Nope. He’s Stella’s problem.” She smiled so he’d know she was teasing.

“We men are problems, that’s for certain.”

“Some more than others, Dad. If I could find someone like you, I’d be thrilled.”

“Oh no. Thankfully that mold broke over fifty years ago.”

“Gosh I hope not. We need more loving, hardworking, honest, dependable, faithful men like you in the world.” He put his hands on his head and then expanded them outward, like his head was growing from all the praise. She gently knocked one of them aside. “Goof ball.”

Her uncle approached them. “Do you have time to come to my office? I’d like to lock up the shop for the day and let Mrs. McLane go home.”

Ellie looked at her father. “We have to wait for Stella anyway.” He nodded. “Okay, that’s fine, Uncle Jim. We’ll meet you there.”

Chapter Ten

Stella didn’t come out of her room until after lunch. Her pale face and the circles under her eyes told Ellie that she hadn’t slept well. They sat out on the porch for a short time, but when the scent of cooking hamburger reached them, Stella clamped a hand over her nose and ran back inside.

Miss Ruby’s will could wait until Stella felt better. Or maybe she should just talk to her Uncle Jim since he was the lawyer who drew up the papers. That seemed like a better option, so Ellie went to her room and called his office. Unfortunately, he was in court and his assistant couldn’t say when he would return.

Ellie opened the box and read through more of Miss Ruby’s letters to her daughter. Each year, on the anniversary of Maddie’s death, the fragile, barely-healed scars on Miss Ruby’s heart tore open again, and the words she read left Ellie feeling vulnerable and raw. The tenth anniversary letter was particularly tough to read and afterward she desperately needed to escape.

She drove the Ranger out to the edge of the woods as near as she could to a secluded little area her father had cleared for her. This was her private little sanctuary. An Adirondack chair sat under a willow tree she’d planted near the body of her first pet—a goldfish who had died, probably from overfeeding, when she was seven years old. Murphy and she used to spend hours out here. She’d read whatever book she was absorbed in at the moment while Murphy hunted squirrels and rabbits as a younger dog, or rested beside her when he grew too old to care about the wildlife.

Ellie found the clearing and glanced around. A couple of summers ago, she’d planted a small shade-loving perennial garden with hostas, bleeding hearts, columbine, and bluebells. A new tree now stood in their center and she smiled. A dogwood! Her father had planted a dogwood tree in her little garden. It seemed to be thriving here, nestled in among the larger trees and protected from the harsher weather. She took a deep breath, enjoying the scents of the forest surrounding her and already feeling more at peace than she had in her bedroom.

She parted the hanging fronds of the willow and settled into the chair. She couldn’t stay long, the sun was already heading for the horizon and it was hard enough finding the place in the daylight—a ten minute trek winding through oak, hickory, ash, maple, and fir trees—but this spot had always calmed her when nothing else could. Oh Murphy, I wish I could have buried you here.

She woke with a start. It was pitch dark under the willow. She reached for her crutches and hurried from the clearing. If she headed as straight as possible through the trees, they would end eventually and then she would just have to locate the Ranger. She shivered. It was too quiet in the trees and that worried her. Shouldn’t there be crickets or something making some noise? Or was her presence keeping them silent?

It was nearly impossible to stick to a straight line as she skirted the trees, but she tried to adjust and readjust as she hobbled through. Several times she caught a crutch on an exposed root and almost fell, catching a branch or a tree trunk to stay upright. She decided to slow down since she didn’t want to rebreak her leg. Why did she leave her phone in the Ranger? What a stupid thing to do! But she hadn’t planned to stay long. Only half an hour or so to recharge her mental batteries. Her parents must be worried sick. Maybe that was good though. Maybe they would come hunting for her.

The sound of a stick breaking high up in the trees behind her made her whirl around. She searched the boughs for reflective eyes and felt relieved when she didn’t see any. But what would they reflect? She carried no flashlight. Her heartbeat sped. Were there any black bears in their woods? Or wildcats?

She gasped as something touched her good leg and lost her balance when she shifted onto her cast automatically. She landed on her side and cried out in pain. A wet tongue swiped at her face and she threw her arms around the furry body standing over her. “Murphy!” Her dog whined and his whole back end wagged in time with his tail. “You’re alive! How did you get home?”

Murphy squirmed free and pushed against her, propelling her to her feet. He took several steps away from her, then paused, looking over his shoulder. “I’m coming, Murph. Lead the way.” She followed the old dog as he picked his way through the trees at an angle from the direction she had been heading. It took longer than she thought it should, but he led her straight to the Ranger. She climbed in behind the wheel and waited for him to jump up beside her. When he didn’t, she went looking for him.

The old dog sat at the edge of the forest. “Come on, Murph. Let’s go home, boy.” She patted her leg as she spoke. Murphy didn’t move so she approached him. She bent over in front of the Border Collie and stared into his intelligent eyes. “Murphy?” The dog, his tail wagging again, stood on his back legs and put his paws on her shoulders so he could lick her face once more. She hugged him tightly. “I love you, Murphy. And I always will.” She felt his flanks rise and fall with a deep sigh. As soon as she let go, Murphy turned and raced back into the forest. She waited in the Ranger, eyes searching the tree line, hoping he would return. But knowing he wouldn’t. Her phone rang and she picked it up. There was a long line of missed calls illuminated on the screen. All from her parents. “Hello?”

“Ellie? Oh thank God! Where are you honey? Your dad and I are worried sick. We were just about to call the police but we knew you’d taken the Ranger out so we thought at first that maybe you just needed some alone time. But it’s four in the morning. Are you alright?” Her mother’s words rushed out. Relief and worry mingled in her voice.

“I’m okay, Mom. I went to my clearing for a few minutes and fell asleep. I’m on my way back and I’ll explain more. I’m sorry I worried you but I’m fine. Relax and I’ll be right there.”

“Oh thank God. Thank God.” Her mother replied, but her voice sounded distant so Ellie assumed she was talking to her dad. She hung up the phone and, with one last glance around the area, started up the Ranger and pointed it toward home.

Her mother and father were waiting for her on the porch when she pulled up. Her father bounded down the stairs, took her crutches away from her and propped them against the Ranger, then picked her up, cradling her in his arms as he carried her to the house. “Ellie-girl, you scared us near to death.” He kissed her forehead and put her down in front of her mother, who immediately clamped her arms around her tightly, tears streaming down her face.

Her father brought her crutches to her and both of her parents flanked her as she hobbled into the living room. “Sit down, baby, and tell us what happened. You’re as white as a ghost.” They positioned themselves on either side of her.

“Well, as I told you on the phone, I went to my clearing to escape. Some of Miss Ruby’s letters are heartrending to read. Tonight’s was the tenth anniversary of Maddie’s death and I just wanted to spend a few minutes in my sanctuary.” She turned to her father. “Thank you for the Dogwood, Dad. It’s so beautiful and looks perfect there. When did you plant it?”

Her mother huffed, probably frustrated at the sidetracked conversation.

But her father’s face had lit up. “I bought it when we got back from visiting you the first time in the hospital.” He shrugged, looking sheepish. “I spent a little more than I normally would for a tree, but we were so relieved to know you were going to be okay. I kind of went hog wild.”

“Aw, Dad, that’s so sweet!” Ellie gave her father a hug. “I love it. Truly!”

“I knew you would. You can’t believe how hard it’s been to keep it secret. I was beginning to think you didn’t care about the clearing anymore.”

Ellie chuckled. “I do. I just hadn’t gotten out there yet.”

“Well don’t go just before dark anymore, please,” her mother said.

“I won’t, Mom. I promise.” Ellie paused. “Murphy found me.”

Both of her parents reacted with shocked expressions and exclamations. “What?” “How?” “Where is he now?” “Are you sure it was Murphy?” The words flew at Ellie from both sides. She held up her hands to stop them.

“I don’t know if I can fully explain it. I was trying to find my way out but it was so dark and I kept getting tripped up.” She took a deep breath, the feelings of fear returning with the story. “I heard a branch snap in a tree behind me. It was over my head but when I tried to see anything, I couldn’t.”

Her mother clamped a hand over her mouth. Her eyes wide. “It could’ve been a wildcat,” she murmured.

Her father grimaced. “Don’t borrow trouble, honey. Now go on, Ellie.”

“That’s when Murphy found me. He brushed against my leg and nearly frightened me to death. I fell down, but he licked my face and I realized it was him. He let me hug him and he gave me more doggy kisses, but then he pushed against me and I realized he wanted me to get up. After I got back on my feet, he started leading me out of the woods. I must have gotten way off track, because it took him a while but he eventually led me right to the Ranger.”

“He’s always been such a great dog,” her mother mumbled. “I’m going to spoil him rotten.” Her expression changed to puzzlement as she looked back toward the front door. “Where is he now?”

Ellie shrugged. “I don’t know, Mom. He wouldn’t come with me. I called and called him. I even went back to get him. He was sitting right at the edge of the trees, but . . .” Her voice broke and she choked back the tears. “He just stood up on his hind legs and licked my face.” Sobs broke free. “I told him I love him. And then he ran back into the trees.”

Her mother held her while she cried. Her father patted her back. She pulled herself together after a few minutes and sat back up.

“Tomorrow I’ll comb the area and see if I can find him.” Her father smiled gently.

“Thanks, Dad.”

“Why wouldn’t he come with you? Was he hurt?” Her mother still looked puzzled.

“I don’t think so. He raced back into the woods like he used to when he was a pup.”

“And you’re really, really sure it was Murphy? Maybe you dreamed it.”

“It was Murphy, Mom. He was wearing his collar with his dog tags and everything.”

“That’s so weird.”

“I know, Mom. I know.”

It was quiet in the room until Ellie yawned. “Well, we can discuss it more in the morning. We should all get some sleep.” Her father pulled her to her feet and helped her up the stairs and to her room. Her mother hugged her, asked her if she was okay, and left with her father to get a couple of hours of sleep before the new day began.

Ellie changed clothes and collapsed into her bed. Misty jumped up beside her, snuggling in, and Ellie curled around the little dog. Her last thoughts before she fell asleep were of Murphy.

Chapter Four

Two weeks after her accident, the door to Ellie’s room opened. Two people and a black rug entered.

“Oh my gosh! Stella! Reid! Misty! Wow, do you need to see the groomer or what?” The puppy danced around the room, sniffing at everything.

Stella laughed and turned to Reid. “I’m pretty sure that comment was only meant for Misty, but I’m calling my stylist when we get back to the car.” She winked at Ellie, who returned the gesture.

Misty tracked Ellie’s scent to the bed, clawing the sheets and jumping as high as she could until Reid picked her up and held her out to Ellie.

As excited to see the dog as the dog was to see her, Ellie let the pup lick her face a few times and them pulled away. “Reid, Stella, thanks so much for taking care of this little troublemaker for me. I hope she hasn’t been too horrible for you guys.”

Stella rounded the bed and bent over to hug Ellie. “She hasn’t been any trouble for me, but then Reid’s the one who’s been puppy-sitting for you. It’s so good to see you, El. It’s been waaaay too long.”

“It has, hasn’t it? You look fabulous, girl!”

Stella laughed. “Wish I could say the same for you. Ouch!”

Ellie squirmed, knowing she was teasing her, but also knowing it was true. “I know. I’m a mess. What I wouldn’t give for a real bath. But how did you guys sneak her in here?”

“No sneaking, required.” Reid spoke for the first time and hearing his voice after so long gave Ellie goosebumps. “I got your little monster here a job as a therapy dog.” He smiled, tousling the black mop on Misty’s head. “I’m sure everyone will love her, if she can learn to keep her tongue to herself.”

“Good luck with that.” Stella swiped her hands down her face, then looked at her fingers as if she could see the germs on them.

“Awww, don’t let them give you a complex, Misty. You’re perfect.” Ellie planted a kiss on the puppy’s head. Deep brown eyes stared out from under a fringe of black hair. Eyes that always melted her heart. Eyes that looked so similar and yet so different from Murphy’s. How he’d stared at her that last time, lifting his paw for her to see. Had he wanted her to fix it? She couldn’t do anything but look into his liquid brown eyes and tell him she loved him and that help would be there soon. He’d laid his head on her shoulder for a few minutes so she could scratch his ears before he went back to his makeshift bed.

“Ellie? Are you in pain? Do you want me to buzz the nurse?” Stella’s eyes searched Ellie’s, distress evident on her face.

“What? Oh,” Ellie wiped the tears away. “I’m always in pain, Stella. I can’t have morphine anymore and I’m trying to wean myself off the other stuff.” Why did Murphy’s death haunt her? “But I’m okay. I’m handling it as best I can. Did I zone out?”

“Yeah, Reid asked how important those red high-heels are to you?”

Ellie glared at the puppy. “You didn’t.”

“She most definitely did.” Reid grimaced. “She figured out how to knock the dog gate down, too. It’s in pieces in the dumpster. Small, chewed-up pieces.”

“Oh no. I named you wrong. I should have called you Miss D, as in demon.”

Stella chuckled. “Cute. So her name’s really Miss T?”

Ellie nodded. “Yes, T as in Trouble. But it sounds like Misty so that’s what I call her.”

Stella’s phone buzzed in her purse. She glanced at the screen and held a finger up, an apologetic look on her face. Ellie nodded and Stella left the room.

Ellie’s nerves kicked in. Being alone with Reid, even after nine years, still frazzled her. She cleared her throat. “So . . . other than my red shoes, have there been any other casualties?”

Reid’s focus had drifted to her cast-encased leg. “Other than the gate, you mean?”

“Yes. Anything else?”

His eyes locked on hers. “If you had any secrets in the trash, they’re safe.”

Ellie groaned. “I bet that was fun to clean up. Anything else?”

Stella returned to talk with Reid. “I’m afraid I’ve got to get back to work. You ready to go?”

“Sure.”

“Okay, I’m going to run to the restroom.” She hugged Ellie. “I’ll be back soon. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“I agree. Thanks for coming, Stella.”

“Love you sweetie. Heal fast.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Stella paused at the door, winked at Ellie, then turned to Reid. “I’ll meet you at the car?”

“Yep, I’ll pull up to the front doors.” After Stella left, Reid turned back to Ellie, holding Misty close so she could say her goodbyes.

“You be good, you little devil.” She rubbed the pup’s silky ears and got licked in the face in return. “Thanks again, Reid. It was probably quite a shock to get that call from my dad.”

He shrugged. “Maybe at first. I couldn’t figure out why you wouldn’t ask for Stella instead of me. But it’s not important. I’m glad to help you. I haven’t been much of a friend so I’m trying to make up for that by spoiling your puppy until she’s unmanageable.” His smile was evil.

“Don’t you dare! I’ll dump her on your doorstep and make you live with the consequences!”

“You know I’m teasing. Maybe I’ll teach her some tricks and surprise you.”

“Good luck. She’s stubborn like her owner.”

“She’s a sweetheart like her owner.”

Ellie’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Reid had only complimented her once, sort of, about her hair. She felt uncomfortable, but laughed it off. “Nice try, mister. I’ll still dump her on you if you don’t watch it.”

Reid laughed. “I’ll be good. Take care, Ellie.” His hand squeezed her shoulder.

“Okay. Bye.”

He walked out the door and her head fell back on her pillow. She stared at the ceiling. Maybe it felt awkward because it had been so many years. Then again, Reid seemed to actually want to talk to her today. In the past, he only spoke to her if he needed something.

Stella, on the other hand, hadn’t changed. She was still beautiful, her dark red hair twisted up in a French knot. Ellie hadn’t realized how much she missed her friend until she showed up today. Maybe when she got out of the hospital, she’d plan a girls’ night out for the two of them.

Ellie buzzed the nurse and asked for a pain pill. Several minutes later she returned, spilling an oval-shaped pill Ellie had never seen before into her hand. “What’s this?”

“Your doctor prescribed a narcotic.” She held up a hand, cutting Ellie off before she could get a word out. “Ellie you just had surgery two days ago. You’ve got to be in constant pain.”

“I want to get out of here. I want to go home. I figure that will happen faster if I’m not drugged up all the time.”

“Pain stresses us out, too. You have to rest in order to heal. Take this so you can sleep well.”

Ellie sighed. “I hardly ever take over-the-counter pain killers,” she grumbled. The nurse handed her the humongous glass of water which always sat on her bed tray. Ellie took a moment to analyze the pain. She probably couldn’t sleep well until it eased up a bit. So, with one last dirty look directed at the nurse, she swallowed the pill.

The nurse smiled. “You are probably the sweetest, most-compliant patient I’ve ever had. Except when it comes to taking your meds.” She shook her head. “Try to sleep now. I’ll check in on you in an hour or so.”

Ellie drifted off, suddenly exhausted.

Reid appeared in her dreams again. He and Ellie walked hand-in-hand around the farm where she’d grown up, kissing in the barn and beside the spring-fed stream that ran through the property. They saw Murphy, hiding in the tree line, and she called to him. He raced toward them at full speed and Ellie laughed, knowing he’d come right up to them before he swerved off. He’d played this game with her all his life.

Ellie watched, spellbound, whenever he ran full-out like that. He was glorious and graceful, especially in the moments when all four paws were off the ground—two stretched out in front with one slowly falling, preparing to touch down and start the sequence again, and two stretched out in back where they’d just left the earth. His mouth was open, tongue lolling out to the side. He looked like he was smiling at her.

Tears filled her eyes. “Oh, Murphy.” She and Reid stood side-by-side. Murphy would swerve any second. Ellie watched the Border Collie alter his gait, gathering his hindquarters under him like he did whenever he jumped. Was he going to try to leap over them? Ellie ducked, trying to drag Reid down with her but he let go of her hand. Murphy, growling ferociously, lunged for Reid’s throat.

“No, Murphy!” Her eyes popped open.

Ellie looked around, trying to get her bearings again. She was still in the hospital. All of her lights were off, but she could see from the light coming in under the door. It must be the middle of the night.

She closed her eyes, trying to recover from the nightmare. Seeing Reid earlier that day had obviously brought back the dreams. Maybe she’d always have those “what if” kinds of dreams where the two of them had a life together. But the accident had changed her. She no longer wanted to pine for someone she could never have. She wanted to be happy and content.

The first thing she would do when she went home is grab those journals, take them to the farm, and burn them. After that, she would do some serious thinking about the present as well as the future. If she could do anything, what would it be? Ellie fell asleep thinking perhaps it was time to empty her guest room.

Chapter Three

A jarring sound shattered her peacefulness. No! No, no, no, no, no! Ellie tried to get back to the quiet but a bright light hurt her eyes. “Elanor Thompson? Elanor? Can you hear me? Elanor!” She tried to shield her eyes and heard him shout “She’s alive!”

She faded in and out, too exhausted to feel relief or frustration at the voices talking around her. She just didn’t care. She tried to respond when a woman asked where the dog went. They’d found Murphy’s body. Would they just discard him? She wanted to bury him out on the farm. But her mouth couldn’t form the words and she slipped away again.

The sound of a machine revving up jolted her awake. Right on top of that overwhelming noise, the loud screech of metal being sawn apart caused her to cover one ear and grit her teeth. A couple of blankets covered her, as well as something heavier that pressed her down. In spite of the noise, she couldn’t stay awake for long. Sleep was so peaceful.

Fingers probing her neck woke her up again. Her eyelids felt so heavy, but she forced them open. A man crouched beside her. She saw him clearly in the light of a new day.  

“Elanor Thompson?” A low, friendly voice asked.

“Yes,” she croaked. She tried to swallow. “Water?”

“We’ll have you out as soon as possible. We have to stabilize you before we can move you.”

She squeezed her eyes closed as her heart pounded with fear. She still felt no pain, but she remembered the agony she’d endured before. She had a feeling her reprieve was almost over.

The paramedic worked quickly, putting a brace around her neck, immobilizing her head, shoulders and torso. It hadn’t hurt at all, so she hoped maybe her pain block would continue. Maybe he’d given her a shot while she slept? She sighed.

Then he looked her in the eye. “I’m sorry, Elanor, but this next part is probably going to be tough. Just hang on and we’ll get you something for the pain.” She took a deep breath and bit down on her lower lip.

It didn’t help. As soon as he touched her arm, she screamed in agony. She’d thought the pain before was bad. That was nothing compared to what she felt now.

“Stop! Oh God, please make it stop!” she sobbed, trying to push him away.

He caught her arm and strapped it down beside her hip. A stiff board held her head motionless as well. “Elanor, fighting me will only jar your broken arm more. Calm down and let me finish so I can get you something for the pain.”

“Sorry, sorry, sorry. Oh God, it hurts so bad. Please, please hurry.”  

“I’m trying to. Hang on.”

She tried to hold still for him, all the while begging that he’d just leave her and let her die.

“I’ve stabilized as much as I can from this position. We’re going to have to lift you out now.”

“Just let me rest for a few minutes, please. I don’t know how much more I can take.”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t do that. We need to get you to the hospital, Elanor.”

“Ellie. Just call me Ellie.”

“Okay, Ellie. Just a few more minutes and we’ll have you out of here.”Someone touched her foot and she screamed again. Pain shot through her, making her teeth and every inch of her skin ache in a sudden, overwhelming crescendo of fire.

* * *

Ellie woke in the ambulance. She had an oxygen mask over her face and an IV bag hanging near her head. Her pain continued to be severe and she moaned.

A man leaned over her, into her line-of-sight. “I’m sorry, Ellie, but the doctor won’t authorize any pain meds until you’ve been evaluated. You could have internal injuries. We’re only a few minutes from the hospital. Hang in there. You’re doing great.”

She licked her lips, noticing a funny taste in her mouth. The ambulance braked quickly and hit a large bump. She felt it magnified through all of the broken places in her body and begged them for something to help with the pain.

“We’re almost there. You’re doing great, Ellie.”

Her eyes drifted closed and her body felt heavy all over. She welcomed the respite from the pain but wanted to tell him something, just in case. “If I die, please tell my parents that I love them. And tell them to take Misty to Reid. He’ll find her a good home.”

“You’re not going to die,” the paramedic said. “You can tell your parents yourself when you see them.”

Ellie fought back the heaviness for a few moments. “But it hurts so much. I’m not sure I want to live anymore.”

“Keep fighting, Ellie. The pain won’t last much longer. We’re almost to the hospital.”

“Misty, my dog. She won’t understand why I’m gone.” She sighed. “Oh Murphy.”

* * *

Ellie drifted in a fog of medication. She knew she was in a hospital and, in her few waking moments, recognized her father and mother. They’d told her she’d broken her left arm, shattered her left ankle, and cracked three ribs. The doctors said it was a miracle she hadn’t punctured a lung. She had multiple lacerations on her face, arms, and chest. Her nose was indeed broken. And she had a concussion which explained the mini seizures she’d had while she was pinned in the Mustang.

She’d already had two surgeries to place a plate and screws in her ankle and pins in her arm. She would need plastic surgery on her face after the swelling went down. It was a lot to handle with the pain and the drugs, not to mention the guilt she felt every time her father came to visit her. She knew he had to hire someone to milk the cows, but whenever she tried to bring it up, they’d shut her down with reassurances that these sorts of things were precisely why emergency funds existed.

The fourth day after she’d arrived at the hospital, she asked her mom who was taking care of her dog. Her mother smiled; her father rolled his eyes. The look they exchanged said a lot.

“I’ve asked you this before, haven’t I?”

“Yes, sweetie, several times.” Her mother winked.

“Several hundred times, you mean.” Her dad teased.

“Reid picked Misty up the same day your dad called him. I’m sure he’s taking excellent care of her.”

Ellie blinked, confused. “I told you to ask Reid to take care of Misty for me?”

“Yes, dear. Don’t you remember?”

She shook her head. 

“You told us over and over that Reid would know what to do. So your father called him and asked him to look after her. Miss Ruby has been meeting him at your apartment. He really is a very nice man, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he is. He must think I’m a nutcase, though, to ask him to take care of my dog out-of-the-blue like that. I hope she’s being good for them.”

“Of course she is. You’ve trained her so well, sweetie.”

“Mmhmmm,” she replied, distracted.

Her stomach churned. Something was wrong; something that was unsettling about the fact that Reid had been in her home. And, like a splinter buried just out of reach, she couldn’t dig up the answer.

* * *

Later that evening Miss Ruby unlocked Ellie’s apartment to let Reid in but she didn’t open the door. “Wouldn’t it be easier if you just took the dog home with you? She’s got to be lonely here alone all day long. I don’t think that’s what Ellie had in mind.”

“Ellie works during the day, too, doesn’t she?” Reid waited for her answer. Miss Ruby nodded. “So the pup’s used to it. I play with her every night before I leave.” He cleared his throat. “You know, what would make this easier would be if you loaned me Ellie’s key. Her dad has been here vouching for me, and I’ll give it back as soon as Ellie’s home.”

Miss Ruby’s eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips. Finally she shook a finger up at him. “You better take good care of that dog. If you let anything happen to her, you’ll have Ellie and me to answer to.”

“Don’t worry, Ma’am,” Reid said, holding out his hand for the key, “I’ll take great care of her until Ellie comes home. I’ll spoil her until she’s impossible to live with. He smiled down at the diminutive old woman.          

“I don’t think that dog could get any more spoiled,” she retorted. “But it sounds like you’ve got the right idea.” She paused. “Are you married?” She pointed at his empty ring finger.

“Yeah, I just can’t seem to keep track of my wedding ring. I’ve lost it three times now.”

“Fiddlesticks! I’d hoped Ellie had finally met someone when I saw you here with her father.”

He chuckled. “Ellie and I went to college together, but we were only friends. She’s always been too good at judging a person’s character to fall for someone like me. But, thanks for the key, Miss Ruby. You’ll get it back.”

He opened the door to Ellie’s apartment to find that the little fur ball had broken down the dog gate and made a huge mess. It looked like she’d found every trash can in the apartment and emptied their contents, one tissue or piece of paper at a time, on the living room carpet. Then she’d shredded all of it.

Thankfully, she’d returned to the kitchen to do her business on her puppy housetraining pads. Reid was proud of himself for that find. No more big messes spread out on the kitchen floor. He just wadded up the used pad and put a new one down every day. Ingenious invention!

He looked around as he circled the apartment picking up after the dog. For the past three days, he’d cleaned up the puppy’s mess and taken her for a walk, unable to handle to stench in the apartment, but those puppy pads must have a deodorizer built in because he couldn’t smell anything today. Either that or he was getting used to the smell.

Reid had never been in any of Ellie’s dorm rooms when they were in college or in any of her apartments afterward. He liked what he saw. Ellie had a well-decorated, very inviting home. She evidently liked antiques and had purchased some beautiful pieces that blended well with the rest of her slip-covered furniture.

Her wall art consisted mostly of nature photography—waterfalls, flowers, mountains and streams—with one exception. Reid crossed the living room to study the photos. This wall appeared to be an important one to Ellie. It had an antique desk pushed up against it, with her writing materials carefully arranged. A bulky black bag sat on the floor near his feet.

Pulling her chair out, he sat down at the desk, trying to see the wall the way she would. He vaguely remembered her saying she’d grown up on a farm but it had never crossed his mind that she might miss it. Now he sat at her desk studying each picture and appreciating the simple beauty of the subject. Each photo was a tribute to a country barn.

Some looked new, with bright, barn-red paint. Others looked older, with chipped, faded paint. And the largest one, which occupied the center spot right above her desk, looked old, but well maintained. Its doors were standing wide open and a gray-haired man, driving an old John Deere tractor, was emerging through them. The picture had been taken in the fall. The leaves were a riot of reds, yellows and oranges. Low mountains trailed off into the distance. It was an entrancing, tranquil scene.

He looked around the room again. So many photos, but all within a theme.  Something clicked in his mind and he turned back to the black bag, hoisting it up onto the desk. She hadn’t zipped it closed the last time she’d used it. Inside were two digital cameras and several different lenses. He picked up the first one, a very nice Nikon, and was tempted to turn it on to see her photos. He put it away and picked up the other one, an even more intimidating Canon. She would probably laugh at his little auto-focus Fuji. He put the second camera away, closed the bag, and set it back where she had left it. He leaned back to admire the photo over her desk—the one he felt sure must be of her parent’s farm—with awe and a little jealousy that she had a place like that to go back to.

He got up to continue his clean-up when a bright color caught his eye. A red, high-heeled shoe. A chewed up, red, high-heeled shoe to be precise, which was lying on its side in the hallway. He hoped those shoes hadn’t been favorites. He’d gotten distracted by the photos, but now he followed the trail of destruction into the bedroom and found the miscreant on top of Ellie’s bed. She was lying across a book. A book with chewed corners, no less. He grabbed a corner and whipped it out from under the dog; Misty did one complete roll and landed back on her feet, tail wagging energetically.

“If you don’t cut this out, you’re going to get us both into trouble.” Misty cocked her head to one side and Reid plopped down on the bed beside her. He stroked her long, silky ears, laughing when her back foot pawed at the air. He stopped, the pawing stopped. She waited to see if he would continue. When he didn’t, she turned around a few times and curled into a ball on top of her pillow.

Reid looked back at the book he’d probably have to replace. But it wasn’t a book, it was her journal. A lavender ribbon, frayed at the end, had fallen out of it. He flipped through the book to find her last entry, where the ribbon should go, but something caught his eye. His name.  

A small part of his brain warned him that what he was reading was personal and not meant to be read by anyone other than the author. But it fell open to the day he’d shown her Stella’s engagement ring, and reading his words—spoken without thinking—and her reactions drew him further in. He read past his wedding day, understanding for the first time why she didn’t come over anymore.

He leafed through the earlier part of the journal, finding the day they met and reading his name where she’d written it for the first time. He read through the entire journal, could see—through her words— his metamorphosis from “jerk” to friend and then to what she wished could have been so much more. All those years and she hadn’t said a single word. Never letting on, because—as she wrote— that would have betrayed Stella and she wouldn’t have been able to handle that guilt

Guilt. That was the emotion he felt most intensely now. For as he read their interactions from her perspective he saw how unknowingly callous he’d been toward her. She was just a girlfriend of Stella’s. An unwanted girlfriend, often enough. How many times had he begged Stella not to invite her to something because he saw her as a distraction or maybe even competition for Stella’s attention? Now he wished he could go back and do things differently.

His attention drifted around the room. Her bedroom was a mix of blues and whites, and more antiques. The bed frame was cast iron with thin black spindles and copper accents. It looked like it belonged in an Audrey Hepburn movie. There was a blue, yellow and white quilt folded across the foot of the bed, with a plain white one covering the blue floral sheets. The pillows—and there were a lot of them—were a jumble of solid blue, floral blue and blue ticking stripes. He couldn’t believe they all went together, but somehow they did.

The walls were painted a very pale blue. Her windows were rivers of sheer white material flowing from black iron rods into a white puddle on the wood floors below. There was a massive oak wardrobe on one wall. And instead of photos, there were vivid watercolor paintings hanging on these walls.

A black bundle of fur jumped up at him and he fell on the bed. “Misty, no!” She darted back and forth, licking his face with her small pink tongue. He rolled to his side, laughing. She got in several good swipes at his nose, chin and ears before he could restrain her. “Yuck! Enough already.”

He rolled onto his back again, holding the little dog in both hands above him. Her small head was hanging down toward him, tongue still lapping and all four legs pawing the air as she tried to reach him again.

“C’mon, girl. Let’s go for our walk.” He tucked her under one arm and left the now-rumpled room.

* * *

Later that evening, Ellie awoke from one of her many naps to find her parents sitting in chairs next to her bed. Her mom looked like she’d been crying and that made Ellie nervous. “Mom, what’s wrong?”

Her mother looked to her father, who gave her the go-ahead-and-tell-her nod. Her mother took a deep breath, set her shoulders, and blew out her breath in a huff. “We have some bad news. Your dad has been out at the scene of the accident every day calling for him, but he hasn’t showed up. We think maybe Murphy’s . . . gone.”

Ellie frowned and her father touched her cheek, drawing her attention to him. “Don’t worry, baby, I’ll keep searching for as long as you want me to.”

Ellie blinked up at him. “Murphy died before I was rescued, Dad.”

“What? Oh, no honey. He was alive. The paramedics said he led them to you.”

“Murphy did?”

“The paramedics described him perfectly. Black and white Border Collie with a blue, reflective collar.” Her dad looked down. “They said he wasn’t using one of his front paws. He had a pretty bad cut on the injured one, but when they tried to catch him, he ran away.”

“He might have left so he could . . . go . . . alone. Some dogs like to be alone at the end.” Her mom had tears in her eyes again.

Ellie nodded. “It’s okay, Dad. You don’t have to go back looking for him. I’ll go one last time when I’m able to. Thanks for trying to find him, though. I love you both. So very much.”

“I’m sorry we couldn’t find him for you. I know how much you loved him.” Her dad’s voice was gruff with emotion.

Ellie closed her eyes. “I did love him. I always will.” Tears slipped from beneath her closed eyelids and Ellie calmed her breathing so her parents would think she was asleep. She couldn’t talk anymore. Murphy had led the paramedics to her? Had she dreamed he’d died and he’d actually escaped to save her life? She vividly recalled touching his cold body and seeing him curled in that ball for hours before she was rescued the next morning. If he’d been alive, surely she’d have known it. So how did he lead the rescuers to her? She fell asleep trying to figure out what had happened.

Chapter Two

One afternoon, toward the end of Ellie’s senior year, Reid caught up to her in the hall after one of her classes. She hadn’t seen him in several weeks although she spoke to Stella often. She tried not to spend too long looking into those eyes that were such a dark brown she could barely see the pupils. Tried not to pay attention to how wonderful he smelled.

“You busy right now?” He fell into step with her.

“No, not really. I just need to grab something for lunch before my 1:30 class. Where’s Stella?”

“Studying, as usual. C’mon, I’ll buy you a burger on the way to my apartment. I want to show you something.” She was surprised. She’d never been invited to his place without Stella. He took her backpack and threw it over his shoulder. “Don’t worry; I’ll have you back in plenty of time for your class. This won’t take long.”

“Okay, then.” She tried to relax. He was offering to buy her lunch and drive her to his apartment, both of which she’d literally dreamed about. And both of which meant absolutely nothing to him.

He held doors open for her, just like he did for Stella, but kept a friendly distance between them. It didn’t help. She seemed to react to his nearness anyway, intensely aware that he walked beside her. She unzipped her coat as soon as they were in his car, trying to cool down. He turned up the heater. She heard him sigh.

“Your hair looks nice today, by the way.” He glanced at her. “What did you do to it?”

“It’s called a spiral perm.” She rolled her eyes, knowing he’d still have no idea what she was talking about.

“I like it. It makes your hair look . . . nice. Which reminds me, do you remember a guy named Scott at the last party we went to?” She shook her head. “Oh, well, he said you were cute and asked if you were seeing anyone. I told him I thought you were available, but that he should probably ask Stella to be sure. She knows that kind of stuff, right?”

“Right.” Her stomach sank. They obviously never talked about her.

When they got to his apartment he led her right to his bedroom. “Sorry about the mess. Stella makes me clean up before she’ll come over but I figured you wouldn’t care.” He picked up some clothes, wadding them into a ball and launching them across the room.

She crossed her arms in front of her stomach, trying to keep from reacting as “you wouldn’t care” repeated in her head. Maybe her irritation showed on her face because he looked confused for a second.

“You wanted to show me something, Reid?”

“Oh, yeah.” His smile returned. He pulled out a black, square box and her heart sank. He popped the lid up. “Do you think she’ll like it?” Inside, a gorgeous yellow-gold engagement ring sparkled against black velvet. At least a carat, probably more, but in a simple design that didn’t look ostentatious. It would look perfect on Stella’s manicured finger.

“Oh, Reid, it’s beautiful. I’m sure she’ll love it.” Her voice broke toward the end, and he looked at her, eyebrows raised. “I’m just so happy for you guys.” She brushed the tears from her eyes.

“I hope I got the size right.” He took the ring from the box and held it out to her. “You’ve borrowed Stella’s clothes before so you must be pretty close. Try it on.”

Ellie’s heart pounded. For three years she’d done everything she could to hide her feelings for Reid from him and Stella. Was she really such a great actress that he had no idea what he was doing to her? She swallowed. “Reid, some girls might not like it if they knew their engagement rings where tried on by someone else.”

He was shaking his head before she finished. “The ring is an heirloom.” He held it closer. “Try it on. Please?

She took it and thrust it on the fourth finger of her right hand. It was a little tight.

“You really are clueless,” he said, taking her hand and removing the ring. He grabbed her left hand. “Engagement rings are worn on the other hand, Ellie.” And, if it had only been real, if the ring had been meant for her, she would’ve been the happiest woman in the world. It fit well, and, against her brown skin, it sparkled beautifully. Her heart shattered.

He swept a hand across his forehead, wiping imaginary sweat away. “Whew!” He waited, a relieved smile lighting up his face, while she took it off and then he placed it back in the box. “Thanks, El.” He pulled her in for a hug.

A hug that was too short. And too long.

* * *

Miss Ruby Ann Benson opened her door and walked into the hall, trying to figure out what all the commotion was about. A young woman was outside Ellie’s door, banging loudly.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

The woman stopped thumping the door and turned to look at her. “Ellie didn’t show up for work today or yesterday and she hasn’t answered her phone or returned our calls. That’s not like her. Have you seen her lately?”

Miss Ruby panicked. She hadn’t seen Ellie since she’d left for her weekend away. She’d tried to return her key twice, but hadn’t caught her at home. “Just a minute.” She held up one finger. “I can get in. I watch her dog when she’s away.”

She ran inside and grabbed the keychain with “I love Cocker Spaniels” engraved on it. She ran back out into the hallway. “I hope nothing’s happened to her.”

A foul odor flooded the hallway as soon as Ruby opened the door and she knew Ellie hadn’t returned. The little black puppy went nuts in the kitchen, barking and dancing around. Tracking over and over through the messes she’d made.

Holding her nose with one hand, Ruby walked over and poured some food into Misty’s dish. The little dog wolfed it down quickly. She still had plenty of water in her automatic waterer.

Ruby felt sick, and not just from the smell. Ellie would never leave Misty unattended like that. Something terrible must have happened if she couldn’t even make a phone call. She walked over to Ellie’s desk and started riffling through it, looking for an address book.

Ellie’s coworker reappeared from her bedroom. “She hasn’t been here. The bed’s made. The bathtub’s dry as a bone.”

“Ellie would never leave her dog like this. She loves that little critter like it was her baby.”

“I’ll call the police.” The woman took out her cellphone,

“Okay. I’m trying to find a number for her parents. They need to know something’s up.”

* * *

Ellie’s waking moments happened less frequently. She dreamed of water and her family. She worried about her parents and her puppy. Only once more did she get a glimpse of Murphy, when he’d held a front paw up to show her the gash across his leg. He didn’t move when she spoke to him now and she assumed he’d died. She’d cried, but that was back when she still had tears.

Sometime during a lucid moment, she decided she had to shift her weight off her left side. Worries of gangrene or amputation from lack of circulation made her grit her teeth and push off the ground, shifting and wiggling around until her butt was on the dirt and her back pressed against the seat. She stuck her legs through the space that used to be her windshield. She’d screamed in agony every time she touched her left arm or leg and was panting and shaking uncontrollably by the end but she’d managed to stay awake long enough to do it.

Murphy’s body lay curled up on what was left of the back seat. She reached as far as she could, managing to touch his back one last time. The fur was still silky, but his body was hard and cold beneath. “Thank you for being my best friend, Murph. I’ll always love you.” She closed her eyes, wishing she’d taken a different route home.

Tuesday morning she awoke, knowing she couldn’t survive much longer. She said goodbye to her parents and her puppy. She prayed that all of them would forgive her. And she mourned for everything she wished she’d had a chance to experience. Love, marriage, motherhood.

Why had she put it off? Did she really think Reid was going to divorce Stella and come running to her? How stupid. How sad. To wish for something that was never meant to be.

She started praying that she’d die sooner rather than later and every time she woke, still in the car, still in pain, she despaired. Her left ankle and hand were so swollen now that the skin looked shiny and purple. She didn’t know what that meant and it scared her. How long could it take to die of dehydration? It might have been better if she’d bled to death the first night.

Tuesday evening, as the forest darkened once more, she drifted off with the peace of knowing it was almost over. The pain was gone now and she smiled. Stupid or not she’d lived a good life. Misty would survive until someone found her. Her parents would mourn, but they’d eventually be okay. And her dad could add all of her books to his collection.

An old memory surfaced of the day Murphy came into her life. She was seven, an awkward, introverted little girl. He was a small, squirming ball of black and white fur. A stranger stood beside her dad, both of them laughing as the pup tried to reach her face, his tongue lapping at the air. “What’s his name?” her dad had asked.

“Murphy!” she’d told them without hesitation. The memory faded.

She sighed. Yes, a very . . . good . . . life . . .   . . .   . .   .

Chapter One

Chapter One

 

Rounding a curve in the road, Ellie’s headlights flashed across a doe and her fawn as they leapt out in front of her car. She slammed on her brakes and jerked the steering wheel hard to the right, trying to steer her little brown Mustang to the shoulder of the road. She missed the deer, but as they disappeared into the night she was too busy to feel relief.

In the Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri, many of the winding, country roads don’t have paved shoulders. The asphalt just ends in a little lip with grass, weeds, wildflowers or just plain dirt on the side. So when her tires dropped off the edge of the road there was little traction for them to find.

The car spun out, headlights strafing the trees on the other side of a ravine.

“Down, Murph!” she yelled. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him jump to the floorboard of the car.

* * *

Elanor Rose Thompson, the adopted daughter—and only child—of a dairy farmer and his wife, grew up on a farm near Nixa, Missouri. Her childhood was a busy one since she was expected to help out around the house and the farm, but she was a happy.

At home there was no such thing as discrimination.

Ellie’s adoption was a closed one. Neither Ellie nor her adoptive parents had any information about her birth mother and father. No names, no medical histories, and no ethnic backgrounds. With so little to go on, people did what they do best: they guessed.

It was easy for everyone to assume, looking at Ellie, that her parents were African-American. Until she looked back at them. Then they couldn’t help but notice she had blue eyes. No wonder her birth mother gave her up, they said.

She was in first grade when one of the girls in her class pointed at her candy bar and compared the color of Ellie’s skin to Hershey’s chocolate. That evening she stood in front of her dresser mirror and noticed other differences. Her hair wasn’t straight, shiny, blond, or brown. It was wiry, black, and unmanageable even though her mother braided it every morning. Each afternoon she would step off the bus looking like she’d been riding in the back of her uncle’s truck all day. It would be years before they learned that her hair shouldn’t be washed every day.

Ellie’s parents lived very frugally, but didn’t mind splurging on the important things: out-of-print books, her education, and a new car every two years.

“You’re only as dependable as your transportation,” her father said.

Once a month her dad hired two of the neighbor boys to take care of the cattle for an evening while he and Ellie drove to Springfield or Branson or wherever he wanted to go for a day of shopping—for old books. And no matter where they went, he always found at least one to add to his collection.

When she was in the tenth grade she’d asked him if she could buy a few to list on that new internet site called eBay and her new business “It’s All About the Past” was born. Someday she planned to open a used and rare bookstore of her own. After she saved up some money.

She graduated from high school and was offered a scholarship to the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She hadn’t decided on a major, but figured she had a couple of years to decide.

The first day of class she met him.

* * *

 Ellie slowly regained consciousness. It was dark. For the first few moments she couldn’t remember where she was until, through the weak light of a dying headlight, she saw the dense trees and patchy vegetation of a forest.

She was still strapped in her seatbelt behind the steering wheel of the little car. She tried to lift her head to find her purse with her cell phone inside, but pain ricocheted through her body when she moved, starting in her neck and radiating down both arms, through her chest and abdomen. Her left leg throbbed all the way down to her toes. She moaned and heard a whine in response.

“Murphy?”

She didn’t remember the accident, but the car now rested on the driver’s side. Evidently her window was broken because she could feel leaves and twigs under her face. She couldn’t breathe through her nose; maybe it was broken. Dirt crunched in her teeth. She tried to spit it out. Her left arm was pinned beneath her, so she reached up with her right hand to wipe her mouth. Her face felt swollen, moist, and sticky and it burned in several places.

She reached for the seatbelt release and heard the click as it unlatched. She felt the vibration of the buckle when it hit the earth near her face and instinctively closed her eyes. She hadn’t thought to close her mouth, however, and coughed on the dirt. A sharp pain stabbed through her side. Her hand flew to her ribcage. She could feel a sharp lump under her skin so she clamped her teeth together and held her breath to stifle the involuntary coughing reflex.

The pain in her ribs faded to a dull ache and she took several slow, shallow breaths. “Murphy, are you all right?” She felt around her, trying to find him. His answering whine came from a space behind her. She tried again to locate her purse, but her hand came up empty. Fear welled up inside her chest. The old farm dog must be badly injured if he couldn’t get to her. She wondered how long it would take before anyone started to look for them. They probably wouldn’t even notice she was missing until she didn’t show up for work in the morning.

Misty would be hungry by now. Her Cocker Spaniel was confined to the kitchen by a doggy gate, so the mess would be contained at least. She knew the pup had plenty of water, but Miss Ruby, the neighbor who was caring for her while Ellie was gone, wouldn’t know that she hadn’t returned home last night as planned. She probably wouldn’t come over to return the key until after six in the evening.

She had to find her purse. She took as deep a breath as her aching ribs would allow and tried to push up from the ground but she couldn’t find the strength and the intense pain caused her to sag back against the cool earth. She felt a sharp prick as a piece of glass impaled her cheek. She reached around to pull it out, cutting her fingers in the process. She needed to do something . . .

* * *

She walked into the first class of her freshman year, sociology, and sat in the front row. Other students began filing into the classroom in groups or alone. They picked out seats, laughing and talking. Soon the only empty spots were the ones on either side of her.

The first day of any new class was the most difficult for her. It brought back painful memories of being singled out. Like her first day in third grade when that little blond girl Aubrey had walked up to her.

“Why do you have blue eyes?” The girl had asked Ellie.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I didn’t know black people could have blue eyes. You look weird.”

“I’m not black.” She hid her hands behind her back because she felt like slapping the blond girl.

Aubrey put a hand on one hip. “Don’t you have mirrors in that old house of yours?”

“Yes, we have mirrors,” Ellie retorted in a mocking voice.

“Well, maybe you should look in one sometime, because you’re black all over except your eyes and that’s just weird.” She turned on one heel and stomped away.

The memory fled as an older man walked through the door. He had just started his introduction when a couple walked in, holding hands.

“Sorry,” the guy muttered as they split up to sit on either side of her.

The professor didn’t comment. Instead, he picked up a packet of papers and proceeded to pass around his syllabus, commenting on the important sections. Part of the requirements for the course, he told them, was to give a group presentation about one of the subjects listed in the hand-out. Each group had to have at least three people in it and the topics would be filled on a first-come, first-served basis so they should choose sooner rather than later if there was a topic they really wanted.

The young man on her left read quickly through the topics and then his head popped up. He leaned forward to see around Ellie and whispered to his companion that they should choose the sexual mores topic. The girl smiled and said that was fine with her. Then she reminded him that they still had to find another person for their group. He took a quick look around, but his girlfriend looked straight at Ellie.

“Would you like to be a part of our group?” she asked.

“Sure, I guess.” Ellie felt heat flood her face as she thought of their topic.

“Good. I’m Stella Spencer,” the woman said.

Ellie introduced herself.

“And this is my boyfriend, Reid Evans.” Stella gestured to the man on the other side of Ellie.

Reid was just returning to his seat after informing the professor of their topic.

“Reid, this is Ellie Thompson, and she’s going to be the third member of our group.”

His eyes flickered over her and then he looked away. “Nice to meet you,” he said, but she could tell by the smirk on his face and the distant tone in his voice that he didn’t mean it.

The next time they met Reid asked her—while looking away—if she would please exchange places with Stella or him so that they could sit together. She traded with Stella so she could sit as far away as possible from the rude jerk.

She liked Stella, though. She was kind, didn’t appear to be looking down on her, and actually listened to Ellie when they talked. She was beautiful, of course. Her hair was a deep, gorgeous shade of red. Her blue eyes were rimmed with thick, long lashes. She looked like a red-haired version of Grace Kelly, her favorite actress out of her parents’ classic movie collection.

Reid, on the other hand, only seemed to notice Stella. He ignored Ellie, for the most part, and she wished she could do the same to him. It might be easier, she admitted to herself, if she wasn’t attracted to tall men with sandy brown hair, dark brown eyes and athletic bodies. And who smelled really, really good.

The three of them worked on the group presentation together. Reid did his part, planning his section of the lecture and PowerPoint presentation and even shocking her with some helpful suggestions when she had trouble locating a source. It was the first time he’d actually looked at her when he spoke and she was so shocked she couldn’t utter a word in response.

Two days before the presentation, Reid rushed into the classroom and plopped down beside her. He looked frazzled—his hair disheveled and his clothing rumpled—as he leaned over to talk to her. She recoiled in surprise.

“Stella’s in the hospital,” he whispered, gesturing with his hand for her to move closer. “She hasn’t been able to keep food down. They’re removing her gall bladder in the morning which means she won’t be here for the presentation. Do you think we can handle her part on our own or should I ask the prof for an extension?”

She thought about it for a second. “No, we have her outline and we’ve listened to her part so we could probably cover if you want to. We might want to run through it though.”

He nodded. “That’s probably a good idea. Stella feels terrible about this, but I think she’ll also be relieved not to have to worry about it anymore.”

He smiled, looking her in the eyes. Her heart raced. She smiled back.

“I’ll call you,” he whispered as the professor walked in.

* * *

The next time Ellie opened her eyes, dappled sunlight filtered through the deep green leaves of the forest and she got her first glimpse of their situation.  She looked herself over, trying to determine the extent of her injuries. Her left arm was misshapen under her skin. Definitely broken, but it didn’t look like the bone had broken through the skin. Of course she couldn’t look at it too closely without feeling queasy. She tried to wiggle a finger but almost passed out from the pain. Her left leg still throbbed, but wasn’t as painful as her arm. She couldn’t see very well from her left eye, which was almost swollen shut.

Her car was a smashed and twisted pile of metal and vinyl and glass. The back seat and the roof of the car almost met from where something—a tree probably—had stopped her plunge. If she’d been sitting in the passenger seat, she’d have lost her legs.

“Murphy!” He’d been lying on the passenger floorboard before the wreck. “You still with me old boy?” A rustling sound from behind reassured her and then a black and white head appeared over the side of her seat. He whined as he laid his head on her arm. She scratched his ear as tears welled up. “I’m sorry, boy. I was trying to keep you safe. Hang in there, okay?” He licked her face and turned away. The way he lurched as he did, told her he was injured too.

Fear and agony took turns overwhelming her. She fought against the sobs that tried to break free, knowing her ribs would protest. Her arm and leg throbbed with each beat of her heart.

She tried to lie still—the pain was less excruciating—but every once in a while her body would stiffen, muscles cramping up in prolonged spasms, and she’d lose consciousness from the intense pain.

Ellie lost track of the hours, unable to tell by the light outside what time of day it was. Surely someone was out looking for her by now. Had they called her parents? They were probably panicking. They’re going to kill me if I die . . .