As he sensed the intruder breaching the protection barriers surrounding his village, the man froze. Seconds later, the man had vanished and, in his place, a brown wolf bared its fangs. And then raced off into the forest.
Her car died on Halloween.
To Sasha’s sleep-fogged green eyes, the wooden sign standing by the country road said, Welcome to Halloween. The sign flickered, and as a sure indication of how bone-weary she was, she briefly saw a tree stump standing in front of a thick grove of trees instead of the sign. When she refocused, the elaborate sign remained. Welcome to Hallows. Est’d. 1648, it proclaimed, in precise small gold letters below a carved coat of arms.
Her little 1968 fire-engine red Ford Mustang, lovingly preserved, wasn’t going anywhere. Sasha tried again, but the engine continued to make that choking sound and the car stayed put. For a minute, she thought about resting her head on the steering wheel and giving in to tears. She was so tired. Carefully, she peeled her fingers from the steering wheel, her ornate amber and amethyst ring gleaming in the fading sunlight. She’d been driving nonstop for over eighteen hours. Everything she had sat in the worn knapsack in the passenger seat beside her. She’d hoped to get farther away, but hope, like her dreams recently, was as dead as her car.
Crying never helped. She’d learned the hard way. At twenty-eight, she had no illusions left. Wearily, Sasha rubbed her hands over her pale face and into her hair. Its shortness always surprised her. The first thing she had done when she left her fiancé, Edward, was to chop off her waterfall of auburn hair in a roadside bathroom. She’d been unexpectedly amused by the resulting mop of irrepressible curls and kept her hair short as an act of defiance. Now the curls sagged, and she suspected they had lost their courage too.
With a sigh, Sasha stepped out of the Mustang. She was tall and lean, just short of six feet tall, with long legs. Not a conventional beauty, her exotic face was too angular under the tussle of vibrant hair, with pale freckled skin stretched over high cheek bones and a determined chin. Her big mossy green almond-shaped eyes staring out of her striking face held a lifetime of heartache and disappointment, beyond what one so young should have suffered. Sasha had learned very early to face the difficulties life threw at her head on.
She took in the forest around her. Nowhere. Of course. Her headlong dash along I-95 had taken her into North Carolina. She’d had vague plans of heading to Florida or Louisiana and finding an anonymous job as a cook in some backwoods bayou oyster bar. Instead, she’d followed the disconcerting frisson that shivered through her when she turned off the main highway and onto the smaller ones. Instinctively, she shied away from cities where she knew Edward was hunting for her. Civilization dropped behind her as highways became country roads. They led her gently into the hills. Soon, fewer and fewer cars had shared the road. Far from being alarmed, she felt sheltered by the tall pines and looming oaks.
Hours passed as she followed that strange compulsion. “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” played in her head. Narrowing eventually, the road twisted in between the trees, danced along the edge of cliffs, and stepped higher and higher. Waterfalls leaped over large boulders before dropping into ravines. A fox paused in the glow of her headlights before fleeing.
Now she stood alone on a dark country road beside a welcome sign somewhere in the hills of North Carolina as the sunset painted the indigo sky orange and crimson. She cursed. It might be the middle of June, but the mountain wind retained a hint of spring’s chill as it twisted through the murmuring leaves overhead. She felt its bite through her red suede jacket. She hadn’t dressed for the weather, and her jacket, light black T-shirt, and jeans wouldn’t keep her warm if she had to sleep in her car. Again.
No lights through the trees. And the last car had passed by over an hour ago. “Great. Wonderful.” She sighed. “Another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.” If she’d stayed on the highway . . .
She sighed again and straightened her shoulders. Self-pity didn’t help. And neither would her cell phone. No reception. Of course not, this far from anywhere, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Trees as far as she could see. No landmarks, nothing but the big wooden sign. The golden letters of the village. The coat of arms. Three metal studs, one at the top and two in the bottom corners.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.” She shivered as the cool wind curled around her.
She’d survived worse. She could handle this. Again she glanced around at the darkening forest. For a moment, the rustling leaves sounded like voices whispering behind her.
Just when she was debating the wisdom of walking back the way she’d driven in the hopes of meeting another car, she lifted her head. Somehow she knew someone was coming. Glancing up the mountainside, she saw a pair of faint yellow lights gleaming through the trees. Like fireflies, they flickered in and out of sight. Slowly, they traveled closer. Soon a 1940s blue Ford tow truck circled around into sight. Sasha waved with relief. The truck pulled in front of her Mustang, its headlights washing over her.
A black man about her age, dressed in worn jeans and a yellow work shirt, slowly stepped out and paused by the truck. Lean and muscular, he seemed surprised by what he saw and confusion flickered across his dark face. “Evening, ma’am. My name’s James Sampson. You needing some help?”
“Yes, my car just stopped. She won’t start.”
“Well, I can have a look if you want. Get you on your way.”
“Please.” She stepped aside.
“Nice car. Very nice.” Her knight in rusty armor turned the key in the ignition and listened intently to the strangled coughing. Then he went to the front, popped the hood, and examined the engine.
After a few minutes of male mumbling and clanging metal, he reemerged. He wiped his hands on a rag from his back pocket. “It’s hard to tell right now, but it might be the battery, might be your cable terminals, might be the alternator . . .” James paused, surveying her. “I have to say, ma’am, you’re a bit off the beaten path here. We don’t normally get much in the way of tourists out this way.”
“Sasha. Sasha Pe . . . Petrie. No, I followed a whim. I didn’t realize how far off course I’d gotten. Now the car . . .” Her voice broke as, for a moment, the stress of the last few months leaked out. She pushed it back down. Oh great, she thought wearily, now he thinks I’m an idiot.
James’s handsome features contorted in panic at the prospect of her tears. He glanced at the car and the lonely forest. “Well, Ms. Petrie, you can’t stay here. It’ll be dark in an hour. I can wait. Is there someone who can come and get you?”
Her “No” might have been too emphatic, but he ignored it. Pausing, he took in the darkening sky.
“Okay, it’s late. You can’t stay here.” He sounded reluctant. “Let’s get the car and you to Hallows. My dad and I have a shop there. We can look at it in the morning and figure out what happened. In the meantime, my auntie takes in the occasional guest and she can put you up for the night. You go sit in the cab and I’ll hook up the car.”
The only alternative: hunker down in the car overnight. And then what? Walk back to the highway?
Resigned, Sasha grabbed her knapsack and climbed into the tow truck while the young man worked efficiently to hook her poor car up. He clambered into the cab, glancing at her before he picked up the radio. “Dad? Tell Aunt Amelia a car broke down . . . No, a woman got lost and the car died . . . Yeah, I know it’s strange . . . No, she’s not . . . I don’t know. Ask Aunt Amelia. Anyway, I’m bringing her in . . .Yeah, I know I shouldn’t. What do you want me to do? I can’t leave her. I’ve already got the car on the back. Let Aunt Amelia know the lady needs a bed for the night. Talk later.” He threw the truck into drive and they headed off.
A large brown wolf emerged from the forest. Its amber eyes followed the movement of the tow truck intently. Then with a low growl, it turned and merged with the darkness.
The night closed in around the truck. The road was invisible and Sasha gave up looking. Normally, a city girl never would have climbed into a stranger’s truck in the middle of nowhere and headed off to who knows where. Whether she’d simply given up or realized she had no choice, she felt oddly safe.
James frowned as if wondering what he was getting himself into.
Her eyelids fluttered and she dozed. When the truck changed direction, Sasha woke up. They were on the crest of a hill. Through the windshield, she got her first glimpse of Hallows.
It sheltered in a valley beside a small river. James drove slowly, the country road they were on becoming the main street. Staring out the window, Sasha saw a small European village, transported to North Carolina.
Along Main Street, which meandered along the riverside, ornate cast-iron lantern-style lampposts cast pools of light on the cobbled sidewalks where people rambled. A few waved at the tow truck as it passed. Yellow stone buildings with slate roofs and pretty blue shutters hunkered beside crisp red-brick shops. Tudor-style homes with the characteristic black trim on white sat beside high-gabled pastel buildings and ivy-covered cottages. Even the roofs ranged from bright red tile to thatch. Farther along, she saw a school, a church, a police station, a post office, and a restaurant called Hetty’s Diner. And a florist called Three Sisters Flower Shoppe.
“Oh my goodness! A castle!” A dark building appeared as Main Street curved around.
“Town hall.” The immense gray stone building faced the large town square. Thin Gothic-arch stained glass windows glowed while four gargoyles leered from each corner of the roof. A round tower soared at each end. A round central bell tower, taller than the others and crowned with cast-iron finials, formed the front entrance. Spotlights below shone on one of the tower’s unique features: four enormous stone dragons, their wings spread, crawling up the tower’s sides toward the large lighted clock with two pairs of small wooden doors below it.
Away and up the hills stretched other smaller streets where cheerily lit homes settled for the night. Above, glaring at each other from opposite sides of the village, two imposing mansions loomed, one on each hill. One looked like a château straight from France’s Loire Valley while the other, a Georgian manor, would not have appeared out of place in the gentle English countryside.
The truck turned onto a side street and pulled into a small plaza with a dry cleaning store, a bookstore, a grocery store, and an auto repair shop.
A dark-featured older man emerged from the mechanic’s bay of Sampson and Son Mechanics as James swung the ancient tow truck into the parking lot. He was a heavier, white-haired version of James, and his eyes carried the same questioning gaze.
“Miss, I’m William. How ’bout you come in where it’s warm and we’ll sort your car?” Opening the door, he helped Sasha out.
Sasha clasped her knapsack to her as she sat surrounded by the familiar smells and sights of any mechanic’s waiting room: oil, grease, tires, Pirelli tire posters, and outdated dog calendars. Again she was struck by the curious sense of security. She didn’t worry about the unexpected cost or what it might mean to her precious emergency stash of money, or the need to keep running. It was enough to be still, to let things happen and trust for at least a little while that she was safe. Unconsciously, she twisted the silver ring on her right hand.
Soon she found herself standing speechless in front of the three-story Queen Anne on Merrie’s Green, a little street close to the center of town. On the way over, James had explained that the Sampson family home had been built in the late 1880s. It had been left to Amelia Sampson, William’s unmarried sister, when their father died. William and James each maintained separate residences in the village, but this remained home to them. James paused, Sasha’s knapsack in hand, before the sweep of wide stone steps. “Something else, isn’t it?”
Sasha could only nod.
Light from its many copper lanterns cast a welcoming glow over a house with a style that could be characterized as either elegantly eccentric or magnificently manic. It dominated its street like a grand dame wearing all her finery. Every architectural whimsy had been used. A rounded witch’s hat turret, painted pink, crowned the front red-brick facade on the west-side corner. Oriel windows cantilevered out from the sides. Cedar fish scale shingles covered the many steeply pitched gables. Over the very top roof, iron cresting marched. Beneath the eaves, tall narrow windows, many stained glass, glowed against the red brick. Ornate, lacy white gingerbread fretwork dripped from the wide wraparound porch, which flared like the dowager’s skirt toward the flower-filled gardens. James’s tiny aunt, William’s older sister, waited in the open doorway with her dog.
On meeting Amelia Sampson, Sasha felt that strange frisson she’d had on passing the welcome sign. The woman further surprised Sasha with a hug. “You just call me Aunt Amelia. Everybody does.”
Sasha felt her whole body stiffen in shock and then relax. It had been so long since she’d been embraced with affection that she had to fight back a wave of longing. Then the pixie-like woman led her though the large open living room, decorated with antique furniture, and through the swinging door into the old-fashioned kitchen.
Later, Sasha felt all the tension and panic of the last few months slip from her body as she spooned tomato soup from a delicate china bowl. Her car needed a part not available in this hidden small village, and it would take at least a few days to arrive.
“In the meantime, you’ll stay here,” Amelia, a regal vision in her gold caftan, declared. She was a delicately boned woman with neatly styled short white hair and graceful, assured movements. With her smooth, unlined, elfin face, it was hard to judge how old she might be, but as William’s older sister, she had to be in her late sixties.
Behind rhinestone cat’s-eye glasses with darkened lenses, Amelia was blind. Her eyes were an eerie, opaque white, yet she seemed preternaturally aware of her environment. With no tentativeness, she passed Sasha a plate of grilled cheese sandwiches from her spot at the head of the table. Under the lacy tablecloth, Honey, a twelve-year-old collie-Labrador mix, wagged her bushy tail hopefully.
“Don’t you worry, now. The house has been feeling empty, so you coming is a blessing. I’ll put you up in the pink room. You stay as long as you need.”
Sasha kept her face free of the panic she felt at the thought of a potentially large mechanic’s bill. “You’ve all been very kind. But I don’t have a lot of money . . .” Accessing her own money through a banking machine was out of the question. The emergency stash she hid in her “go bag” was all she had.
Amelia patted Sasha’s shoulder as she passed and walked confidently around the room, Honey at her heels. From a Mickey Mouse cookie jar sitting on the dark green laminate counter, she loaded a plate with homemade oatmeal cookies. “Sweetie, not to worry. Hallows takes care of its own. You were brought here for a reason. It’ll all work out.” Seating herself, she turned her milky gaze toward her brother. Sasha soaked in the warmth and the sense of family and tried not to remember another homey kitchen and kind people. Enjoy it while it lasts, she’d learned.
James explained the problem with Sasha’s car and they discussed the logistics of ordering the part through someone named Molly. William, reaching for a second cookie, promised his sister he’d find time to have a look at a squeaky closet door. The men cleared the dishes and loaded the dishwasher while Amelia chatted. Only when William dealt with the hot tea did his sister acknowledge the limitations imposed by her handicap.
With dinner done, Sasha picked up her knapsack and followed the tiny lady back though the house and up the curving wide stairs. At the end of the second floor hall, Amelia opened a door to what would be Sasha’s temporary new home.
An airy corner room with two windows. In the morning, she would have a magnificent view of Amelia Sampson’s beloved rose garden. Sasha took in the very pink space. From the bedspread on the ornate white cast-iron double bed facing the windows to the curtains and the wallpaper, everything bloomed with big pink flowers on a pale blue background. The elderly woman, despite her blindness, loved her roses. The decor should have been a riotous nightmare, yet it felt calming. Amelia’s sightless eyes scanned the room as if making sure certain everything was suitable for her newest guest. Satisfied, she turned back to Sasha. “I hope you like it.”
“It’s wonderful,” Sasha said honestly. A remarkably peaceful space.
Amelia hugged her again. “Then I wish you sweet dreams. Your bathroom’s down the hall, my dear. It’s all yours since my room has an en suite. We’ll talk about rent and details tomorrow. Meanwhile, breakfast if you want it is at seven. Sleep well.”
Amelia left the room and quietly made her way downstairs to the kitchen. The men had added whiskey to their tea. As she took her seat, William and James tried to make Amelia understand her folly, but she wouldn’t budge. This Outcomer must stay.
The discussion continued as the rest of the council arrived. The disturbing news had flown around the small village. Somehow, this Outcomer had gotten past the welcome sign and worse, been brought into Hallows itself. Respectfully, Amelia, the matriarch, had been wrong to send James after her and then offer her sanctuary. Various solutions, some more violent than others, were offered and rejected. It would be the early-morning hours before finally the council conceded. They would respect the matriarch’s vision: the various special peoples of Hallows would hide their special abilities and watch and wait.