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"Relax," she whispered to herself. "Tensing up isn't going to help."
She should have put her foot down. This wasn't an emergency trip. Aunt Sophie didn't need Christmas decorations tonight. Tomorrow morning would have been a better time to drive over to the craft shop on Tilghman Island.
But her aunt had been anxious to get a head start on the season. And Chelsea had forgotten how fogs could roll in from the Chesapeake Bayor from the creeks and rivers that crisscrossed this part of Maryland's Eastern Shore.
That was proof of how much her life had changed in the past few months. She'd been living in Baltimore, well on her way to establishing herself as a sought-after local artist whose paintings were described as "haunting."
Now she was back in Jenkins Cove, the town where she'd spent her summers at the House of the Seven Gables, Aunt Sophie's sprawling Victorian bed-and-breakfast right on the town harbor.
Her aunt was getting on in years and could no longer run the B & B by herself. Chelsea knew that if her aunt was forced to sell the business she'd run for the past forty years, her reason for living would be gone.
Chelsea simply couldn't let that happen to her only living relative. So she'd done what she'd sworn she'd never do. She'd moved to Jenkins Cove.
Once, she'd loved the town and the House of the Seven Gables. Now it felt like foreign territory. She was struggling to settle into the rhythm of life in the quaint little community whose main business was tourism.
Every year the merchants sponsored a contest for the best and most tasteful holiday display. Aunt Sophie wanted to win which was why she'd sought out a woman known for the specialty garlands she created and why the trunk of the car was full of holiday greenery.
Chelsea felt her shoulders begin to tense again. It was spooky along this stretch of four-lane highway. She could imagine ghosts weaving their way through the trees.
"Stop it!" she ordered herself, firming her lips as she kept driving. "Don't think about that now. Just get home, and you can have a cup of hot chocolate in the parlor."
A car honked and passed. A fool going too fast for the foggy conditions.
When a noise in the trees to her left made her jump, she took her eyes from the road for a moment.
"It's only an owl," she muttered, then flicked her gaze to the blacktop againjust as her headlights illuminated a shape on the pavement. Gasping, she slammed on the brakes.
In the swirling mist, she saw what looked like a person huddled on her side, lying on the pavement. A woman with long dark hair fanned out behind her head.
Easing the car to the gravel shoulder, Chelsea sat with her heart pounding for several seconds.
Though she wanted to stay in the car where it was safe, she knew she had to get out and help the woman. With an unsteady hand she cut the engine, then reached toward the glove compartment and got out a flashlight.
Gripping the barrel like a club, she stepped out, shivering in a sudden gust of wind that rattled the bare branches of the trees. During the day, the weather had been warm for the last days of November, but after dark the temperature had sharply dropped.
After glancing up and down the highway, she walked back toward the place where she'd seen the woman. But when she shone the light on the ribbon of macadam, she saw nothing.
"Hello? Where are you? Are you okay? Can I help you?" she called out.
When no one answered, her fingers tightened on the flashlight and her throat clogged. Maybe she'd been mistaken, she thought as she swung the beam along the road, then onto the far shoulder, the mist distorting the light.
As luck would have it, no other cars passed. With a quick glance back at her car, she walked along the shoulder, shining the light into the underbrush.
Finally, she returned to the vehicle and fumbled in her purse for her cell phone. But when she opened the cover, it made a beeping sound and went black.
She muttered something very un-Christmas-like under her breath and put the phone back. Who was she going to call, anyway? Police Chief Hammer? And tell him what? That she thought she'd seen a body on the road to Tilghman Island and now it was gonevanished like a ghost?
The lazy old bulldog would really thank her for that.
Charles Hammer must have had some kind of pull to get voted into office. Too bad the town couldn't get rid of him for another couple of years.
Or maybe most of the people in Jenkins Cove thought he was doing a fine job.
After casting one last anxious glance at the spot where she thought she'd seen the woman, Chelsea started the engine again. The mist was thicker now, and she drove more slowly, afraid to hit a deer leaping across the highway.
Maybe that's what she'd seen earlier. A deer, hit and momentarily stunned. There hadn't been anybody lying on the blacktop, after all. It was just her imagination working overtime.
She'd started to relax a little when a flash of movement made her brake again.
This time she didn't see a body lying across the blacktop. This time, in the moonlight, she saw a woman running through the woods at the side of the road. And a man chasing her.
Her long black hair was streaming out behind her, and she looked as though she was wearing a dark coat that hung loosely on her body.
The woman screamed, then screamed again as the man caught up with her, catching her by the hair.
Chelsea pulled to the shoulder once more. Grabbing the flashlight again, she leaped from the car.
"Get away from her," she shouted as she charged into the underbrush.
She heard the woman whimper and thought she saw the man raise a knife. Then they both disappeared into a thicker patch of woods. When Chelsea tried to follow, she splashed into cold water that slopped over the tops of her shoes. As she pressed onward into sucking mud, she floundered into a water-filled hole and almost fell on her face. She was in one of the swampy areas so common around Jenkins Cove, and if she kept going, she was liable to end up waist-deep in freezing water.
Heart pounding, she stared into the bog. The woman and the man had vanished into the darkness as though they had never been there.
As Chelsea replayed the scene in her mind, she realized she'd never heard anything besides the woman's scream. Shouldn't they have been splashing through the water? And how had they gotten through the swamp, anyway, when she had ended up knee-deep in frigid water almost immediately?
She backed up, feeling her way carefully, trying not to step into another hole. She'd only been out of the car for a few minutes, but her pant legs were soaked, and her legs and feet already felt like blocks of ice.
As she retraced her steps, she wondered what she had seen. Had her overactive imagination combined with some trick of the moonlight to make her think that a woman was running for her life?
Chelsea made it back to her car and stamped her feet to shake off some of the mud. Climbing inside, she closed the door and sat behind the wheel, shivering.
She started the car and turned up the heater, thinking that she had to report this to the police. Even if it turned out to be nothing. Even if the last thing she wanted to do was tell her tale to the cops.
She raised her head, looking around for a landmark. A few yards away was a sign advertising a restaurant in Jenkins Cove. Now she knew how to find this spot again.
While she stared at the sign and the blackness beyond, she thought about something that had happened when she was ten. Something she could block out of her mind most of the time. But not now.
She'd been at a friend's house out at Mead's Point, on a farm that bordered the bay. She and Amanda had been playing outside down near the water. When it got dark, neither one of them wanted to come in, so they went over to the old icehouse to look for fireflies.
That was where it had happened. Amanda was looking out toward the bay, while Chelsea was staring at the icehouse, trying to figure out why the shadows seemed so strange around the little building and why the air felt so cold.
Then a young woman stepped out of the doorway and stood facing Chelsea. She held out her hand, her face pleading as though she wanted something urgent.
Her lips moved, but Chelsea couldn't hear what she was saying. She only felt a terrible pressure inside her own chest and horrible waves of anguish coming off the woman.
She moaned or screamed something, because Amanda came running. But her friend didn't see anything.
When Chelsea looked up, the woman had vanished.
"She was here. I saw her," Chelsea insisted.
"You're making it up."
"No, I'm not. I saw her."
Maybe it was fear that made Amanda start teasing her.
"Liar, liar. Pants on fire."
The next thing Chelsea knew, she was in tears. She'd been looking forward to spending the night at Amanda's, but she was too upset for that. She ended up going back to the House of the Seven Gables, where Aunt Sophie did her best to find out what had happened and then to comfort her.
But Chelsea was beyond comfort. She knew with a strange certainty that the woman she'd seen was a ghost. A ghost who was depending on her to set things rightwhatever that meant. But Chelsea simply hadn' t been able to understand her. And she felt like a failure.
It was a lot to put on a ten-year-old girl. So much that the experience changed her whole feeling about Jenkins Cove. Until then, she'd loved spending the summer down on the Eastern Shore. It had been a child's dream vacation.
After that incident, though, she'd only come back for short
visits with her parentsuntil they'd been killed in a car accident right after her senior year of college. Then she'd come back from time to time to visit Aunt Sophie, her father's older sister.
Now she was back in town againfor the time being.
At first she'd felt a vague sense of foreboding. When nothing upsetting had happened, she'd started hoping that livi...