Welcome back to Broslin Creek! Can't wait to catch up with you. How about a cup of coffee at Finnegan's? You won't believe what's happening. Allie Bianchi, the town bum's daughter, just blew back into town. UP. TO. NO. GOOD. No doubt. Well, Harper Finnegan is a police detective now. She's not going to get her hooks into him so easily this time. Not when there's murder afoot! You just watch and see.
On the verge of losing her business, Allie Bianchi, a historical reenactor, must return to her hometown that never accepted her family. The sooner she leaves again, the better. But when the town recluse is murdered on the night of her arrival, his prepper hoard stolen, she becomes Detective Harper Finnegan's number one suspect. In what universe is her town black sheep ex-boyfriend now a cop, arresting her for murder?
"I laughed, cried, kept me at the edge of my seat, could not put it down." Maple River Review /BROSLIN CREEK SERIES
In a perfect life, Allie Bianchi would have returned to her hometown—where her ex-boyfriend lived—with an impressive new boyfriend, a successful career, a slinky silk dress, and the waistline of a Kardashian. Her life was far from perfect, however, so she struggled through an epic snowstorm toward Broslin, Pennsylvania, dumped, broke, and wearing Wild Bill Hickok’s buffalo coat.
Word to the wise: buffalo coats do no one’s waistline any favors.
The least of Allie’s worries, really, when she was staring death in the ghastly face.
She had died three times that week already, so it wasn’t as if she didn’t have practice, but this time, her untimely demise could be disturbingly real. As in: final. Unlike that very morning, when she’d been reenacting Calamity Jane’s life and death for the fifth-grade class at Suntown Elementary in Maryland.
Calamity Jane had died among strangers, while on a trip.
As a historical reenactor, Allie had given a spellbinding performance, dressed in head-to-toe buckskin, lying on her bedroll under the whiteboard that had been transformed into a starry sky. A hush had settled on the classroom, breaths held, eyes wide and waiting for her dramatic last gasp as she went limp. The only thing missing had been tumbleweed blowing across the stage.
The warmth of that classroom seemed a million miles away, as Allie dragged herself—and the infernal buffalo coat—forward in the storm in the frigid night, wondering if she might be able to find tumbleweed online. If she didn’t die here first, for real, in a snowdrift.
Except, no. She refused to freeze to death within a mile of safety. She had the coat. She was going to make it. She couldn’t afford to miss her next show, not at the rate her long-standing gigs were being canceled for the next academic year. School budgets were being cut again. She needed the money.
“Screw you, winter!” she shouted into the squall. “Screw you, snow! And screw you, wind! Sideways!” And then she hurled one of Calamity Jane’s curses, the one that always made the kids laugh. “Dagnabbit!”
The squall howled back.
She skidded and almost fell on her buffalo-fur-padded ass.
When she’d died in the classroom, it had been a lot more dignified. Silence had stretched stark and somber, symbolizing not just the end of Jane, but the end of a certain way of life—the end of the Old West.
Several breathless seconds had passed before the teacher’s clapping broke the spell. While the kids cheered, Allie drank up the youthful, innocent enthusiasm. To be the one to put those smiles on the fresh-scrubbed faces, that look of wonder into those young eyes, felt incredible. The kids made her work worthwhile. She wouldn’t have traded her job for a desk in a cubicle if someone offered her a million dollars.
“Did you really sleep on the ground when you were scouting?” A little girl with eyes of shiny black pearls had asked afterward. “Weren’t you afraid of snakes?”
“I didn’t care for them, young miss,” Allie had answered in her well-practiced Old West cadence. “But they sure made good stew.” She’d winked, then dropped her voice. “Especially the rattles.”
The memory of squeaks and gasps would have made Allie smile if she weren’t worried that her tooth enamel would freeze and crack.
As she progressed another dozen steps, a sign materialized on the roadside in the distance. She stopped to catch her breath, squinting to make out the letters. The town WELCOME sign would mean she was almost there, but the frozen white flakes were coming down too hard, no break in the wind. She couldn’t make out any letters.
She yanked her cell phone from her pocket with stiff fingers and almost dropped it before she managed to turn on the screen, in vain.
Zero bars. No reception.
She swore some more at the storm that weakened the signal and hid the town. She needed one freaking break.
Okay. Whatever. No pity party.
Her stupid hometown lay straight ahead whether she could see it or not. And she was going to reach it.
Broslin Flipping PA.
She was back, running from the ex-boyfriend behind her, hoping to avoid the ex-ex-boyfriend ahead of her. So not the life she had envisioned for herself.
A headache unfurled between her eyes. She blamed that too on the storm. She refused to allow either Zane or Harper enough power to give her a headache.
She’d left Zane behind forever. She was not going to think about him ever again. And what were the chances that she’d run into Harper Finnegan while she was in Broslin for a single day? She could not be that cursed.
She drew a deep breath and belted out the “Everything’s Alright” part from Jesus Christ Superstar. She hadn’t been the queen of high school musicals back in the day for nothing. Musical theater was, and always had been, her defense against the dark arts.
As if the squall had heard her, it quieted for a moment. And with the snow not blowing every which way, she could make out the sign at last, not the WELCOME sign after all, but a billboard.
HOPE YOU HAVE A GOOD TRIP.
About a hundred feet behind it, on the opposite side of the road, stood another gem.
HOPE YOU HAVE A FUN DAY.
She snorted. Or tried to. There were icicles in her nostrils.
Let’s not do that again.
The same went for hope. She hadn’t believed in wishing and hoping since…ever. She believed in fighting for what she wanted. So, as the squall reported back to work after its two-second coffee break, Allie marched forward despite the skin-peeling chill, despite the headache that pounded her as if she owed it money.
A mile down this miserable road, a warm room waited for her at the Broslin Bed-and-Breakfast. One flipping mile. Calamity Jane would be able to do it. And if Jane could do it, so could Allie.
Her feet were dry, a considerable advantage. She usually drove in sneakers, but when a snowbank had claimed her car, she switched to the cowboy boots that she had as part of her costume. The deep snow called for tall boots. No help for the spurs; she’d had those fixed on permanently. She’d lost several pairs over the years, and authentic Wild West spurs weren’t easy or cheap to replace.
While her toes were safe, her face was freezing off. She had wrapped her scarf around her head so she wouldn’t lose her hat to the wind, but she had to leave room to see and breathe, which led to a frozen nose and frozen cheeks.
As for the areas between her toes and her nose… Thank God for the replica buffalo coat she’d picked up online. Wild Bill Hickok’s, she always told the kids when they asked, a good segue into Jane’s Wild Bill years.
Keep going, or there’ll be no more shows, no more wide-eyed kids.
One foot in front of the other. The simple task should have been easy, but it wasn’t. For one thing, the giant purse that dangled off her elbow threw her off-balance. She hadn’t been willing to leave it in the car, and the coat was too large to wear anything over it cross-body, the snowy fur too slippery for the strap to stay on her shoulder. If Allie wasn’t worried about losing her fingers to frostbite, she would have pulled her hands from her pockets and dragged the damn purse in the snow behind her.
She’d left her gloves at her last performance, dagnabbit. Had put them down on top of the toilet paper holder in the teachers’ bathroom where she’d changed, and forgotten them. She would have to pick up another pair in Broslin.
She struggled forward, then stopped for a second to catch her breath again. She looked back—snow and more snow, no way to tell how much distance she’d covered.
She’d been walking for about an hour, every step feeling like a mile. A death march. The thought made her start back up and push ahead.
Ice coated her eyelashes by the time the next sign appeared in the distance, rattling in the wind.
Dear God, let it be the welcome sign promising the edge of town. But no. Another stupid billboard sponsored by the local tourist board.
HOPE YOU’RE SMILING.
Her lips were frozen to her teeth.
She muttered a string of words she could never use in the classroom. Then again, screw muttering. She would not go out with a whimper.
“I refuse to die here!” she shouted into the wind.
Even Calamity Jane had made it to fifty-one, despite all her hard living.
Allie staggered on for another half an hour, leaning into the wind, before her exhausted body stumbled to a halt in the middle of a snowdrift. The wind howled around her, whipping ice crystals into her eyes. The temperature had dipped to well below freezing.
She forced herself to take another step, but no longer had the strength to lift her feet enough to clear the knee-high snow. She shuffled forward, progressed another yard or so before the snowdrift irrevocably trapped her boots in its unyielding grip.
The tears in Allie’s eyes didn’t spring of self-pity. They sprang of anger. She hated to admit defeat. She refused to let those tears roll and freeze on her face.
“I will not give up!”
The squall responded with a howl that sounded suspiciously like laughter, but then…a scraping sound cut through the wind.
Allie stilled. She peered through the blowing snow, holding her breath, her eyes narrowed to slits. Let it be the giant township plow. Please, please, please.
All she saw when the wind shifted direction for a second was another damn billboard. LIVE YOUR BEST HOPE.
What did that even mean?
The sign disappeared in the next gust of snow, then nothing.
But then—yes!—more scraping, coming from somewhere ahead of her.
An endless, breathless minute passed before a snowplow charged out of the blizzard as if from an otherworldly dream.
The plow wasn’t exactly the majestic beast of Allie’s fantasy—only about a third of the size the weather warranted. Not even a real snowplow, just a plow fixed to the front of a green pickup. But she was saved!
She enjoyed that ecstatically happy thought for about three seconds. Until she realized the green beast wasn’t slowing. The plow kept coming head-on, without showing any sign that the driver saw her.
Her stuck boots trapped her in the deep snow, twenty pounds of buffalo fur weighing her down.
“Hey!” she yelled. And then she yelled other words, ones that would have brought a blush to Calamity Jane’s cheeks.
Then the driver finally spotted her, and the pickup slowed before sliding to a stop not a foot from Allie, pushing snow onto her legs, the weight enough to make her topple backward.
Her boots finally popped free from their frozen trap.
And she went down like a big furry tree.
The snow and the coat cushioned her fall, but crashing back still rattled her headache. Wiggling to rise didn’t improve matters. Oh, hell, dammit. She didn’t have enough strength left to lift the coat vertical. The air had been knocked from her lungs. Hard.
“Help!” She meant to shout, but barely made a sound.
Yet help was coming anyway.
She could hear the truck’s door slam shut. Then the driver walked in front of the headlights, and she could see him too—a tall guy in proper winter work boots and a quilted jacket.
He stopped three feet or so away from where she waited. Took another step forward. Then bent cautiously over her.
His square jaw contrasted with soft, warm lips that melted any landing snowflakes. His eyes were Allie’s favorite color: Irish Sea blue. His gaze held both light and shadow, although more of the latter than the former.
The man she least wanted to see, under the circumstances.
Under any circumstances.
Her notorious ex-ex. Harper flipping Finnegan.