Second Star to the Right, Excerpt

London, England, UK — A view towards Big Ben through the window of a nearby pub — Image by © Ocean/Corbis


Jack awoke when the light crossed his eyes. It was a quick flash-brilliant and piercing. Then it was gone. He bolted upright in his bed, rubbing his eyes as the tinkling sound of chimes rang in his ears. The pewter-colored darkness was pierced by a pale yellow stream of light flowing in through the open window. An ordinary London streetlamp, he realized, as he blinked away the sleepy stupor. He surveyed the familiar pieces of furniture in the shadows: a three-drawer bureau spilling out socks, a hard- backed chair burdened with tossed clothes, a floor lamp with a tilted shade. All was quiet. All was undisturbed. He rubbed his neck, then the stubble along his jaw, waking slowly.

There it was again! A small ball of light, no bigger than his fist, burst from the closet and darted across the floor and walls in quick, erratic spurts before disappearing out the door. Now Jack was wide-awake, and his heart was pounding. The chase was on! Whipping back his covers, Jack leaped from his bed and hurried across the creaking floorboards to peer out the door and listen.

Down the hall, the ball of light waltzed in dizzy circles across the walls, bouncing from the floor, then jumped around the corner into the kitchen.

He stealthily reached toward the umbrella stand, his fingers grazing over the umbrella and reaching for a large butterfly net. This time he was going to catch that ball of light, he vowed as he followed the bouncing light to the kitchen.

The large old kitchen with its gleaming AGA stove and delft blue tile was still and silent, cloaked in eerie moonlight. Brandishing his net, Jack scanned the floor, the walls, the counters. Not a single beam of light pierced the darkness. Nary a shadow.

“Okay-who’s here?” he called out, his voice gruff.

Only a flapping of the curtains sounded in the evening breeze. Jack went to the slightly opened window and squinted against the glass, but all he could see was the clutter of an old garden gone to seed. The back door was closed, and, on checking it, he found it locked as well. Outside, a swell of wind rattled the garden gate, and from somewhere came a sharp clatter, like a tile tumbling from the roof to the ground. Grabbing a flashlight from the cabinet, he swung open the back door and followed the sound to the rear garden.

His beam slunk like a snake along the surrounding stone wall, weaving in and out of the cracks. He moved it along the crooked flagstone of the terrace that held as its centerpiece a small fountain graced with a bronze boy playing his pipes. A fine coating of dust from the decaying walls covered the boy like pale, aging skin, giving him a ghostly aura. When Jack’s beam shone on the bronze boy’s face he discovered, beneath the disguise of dust, a cocky smile and teasing, taunting eyes.

A shadow fluttered in the sky to his left. Jack swiveled on his heel and flashed the light up to the rooftop. On the third floor there was a large French window with a small ledge bordered by a wrought-iron railing. Very feminine. Very unreachable, he decided, checking out the thirty-foot drop. There was no one there, and, as far as he could tell, there was no way to climb up. Not even scale down from the roof. No point in alarming Crazy Wendy who lived upstairs. She was ninety-something, and the poor old dear needed her sleep.

And so, apparently, did he. He dropped his arm and shook his head, chuckling at his imagination. There was nothing here at all. No intruder, no ball of light-just some grown man in his shorts with a dumb look on his face and a tilting butterfly net in his hand. Whatever woke him up was gone now. Crazy Wendy wasn’t the only one seeing things fly around at night, he thought.

Flicking off the flashlight, Jack leaned against the cool stone outside his door, yawning. Feeling more relaxed, he tilted his head back and stared out at the stars he’d loved since he was a boy in Nebraska, lying in a cornfield, sipping a grape NeHi. He readily spotted the bright pulse of the North Star, the Big Dipper. Then his gaze wandered toward the Corona Borealis.
Not that he wouldn’t have enjoyed finding a UFO or some such. He was forever scanning the skies for the unexplained, looking under rocks for the creepy-crawlies never before seen. Isn’t that what he did all day? As a thirty-six-year-old physicist, Jack Graham was forever the curious boy delighting in the discovery.

But not tonight, he thought to himself, running his hand through his curly hair. He released a wry smile. Nope, tonight the mysterious light was most likely explained by a bit of spoiled beef. The Brits might think a sip of peppermint tea would do him good- they thought a pot of tea solved everything. Tonight, however, he could use a belt of scotch. Jack pushed himself from the wall and headed back indoors, leaving his trusty net beside the door.

Before closing up, he felt a soft breath of air by his ear that whistled a high, tingling hum. His heart skipped and he swung his head around to take one last, curious scan of the night sky.
Just in case he got lucky.


Chapter 1

A spring breeze fluttered the paper in Faye O’Neill’s hand as she stood at the curbside staring up at an imposing London town house. On her left lay a pile of bulging luggage. On her right, her two young children slouched, road-weary and cranky. She checked the address, then squared her shoulders. Number 14 was a three-story, narrow, redbrick Georgian house in a line of similar buildings well situated on the lane. A neat and tidy building, old yet gracious, with a broad front stoop that held cheery red potted geraniums. With its high-arched windows and broad granite stoop, it seemed that the building was somehow smiling, perhaps even welcoming, her. Faye smiled back and squeezed Maddie’s and Tom’s shoulders encouragingly.

“There’s something about it… I think we’ll be happy here. What do you think?”

“It’s old and dumpy,” Maddie said, scrunching her face in disapproval. “I liked our house in Chicago better.”

Faye closed her eyes and stilled her tongue. Her eight-year-old daughter had been oppositional the entire flight across the Atlantic Ocean and wasn’t letting up on shore. Faye saw Maddie push out her thin lips in a pout, saw the sharp line of her narrow, straight-backed shoulders, and recognized the defiance in the pale blue eyes behind shaggy blond bangs. Faye exhaled slowly, knowing in her heart that her daughter wasn’t going to make this easy for her.

“It’s not so bad,” she replied with forced cheer, spotting the chipping paint on the window trim and the patches of rust on the black-iron fencing. The building did look a little tired. “Nothing that a little spit and polish couldn’t fix. What do you think, Tom?”

Her six-year-old son buried his face in her skirt for a reply. Faye sighed wearily.

Standing near the door on the high front stoop was a distinguished-looking older woman who also bore a broad front stoop, but instead of a potted geranium she wore a huge, peach-colored silk hat. In one hand she pressed a large black clutch purse to her breast: in her other she held a clipboard. Nudging the children forward, Faye firmly placed a smile on her face.

“Mrs. Lloyd?” she called out.

“Hello there,” crooned the older woman, waving. She clumped down the flight of stairs and advanced on them, all broad smiles. “You must be Mrs. O’Neill. How do you do?” she exclaimed, extending her hand with vigor.

“We’re tired but well,” Faye replied taking the hand. “We’ve only just arrived in London.”

“And these are your darling children?” Mrs. Lloyd peered down over a short, bobbed nose, sizing the two up as to the potential damage they could render one apartment. She attempted to disguise her obvious dislike of children with high-pitched, sugar-coated words.

Maddie and Tom immediately tried to duck behind their mother, each clutching Faye’s skirt. Faye offered a tentative smile while tugging at her waistband, wishing that just once her two children would shake someone’s hand and smile rather than slink and mumble.

“Say ‘hello,’ children,” Faye said through a strained smile. “Maddie?” An appeal to her eldest.
Faye didn’t have to see them to know her little darlings were glaring back at the stocky old woman with the funny, tilting hat and pale, critical eyes. Children had a second sense about people that she’d learned to respect.

“They’re shy,” she muttered, catching herself from falling over as the two butted against her. “And it’s been a long trip. I’m sure they’ll feel better once we’re in the apartment.”

“You mean the flat,” corrected Mrs. Lloyd with an arched brow. “You’ll have to get accustomed to the Queen’s English now.”

Faye pressed her lips together. So, Mrs. Lloyd was one of those people who delighted in correcting others and always being in the right. “Yes, the flat,” she replied softly, her toes curling in her leather pumps.

Mrs. Lloyd dug into her vacuum of a purse and emerged in triumph with a tagged set of keys. “Here we are,” she exclaimed. “Shall we go in for a look-see? Your flat is on the first floor, and it is the nicest in the building, I believe. Careful with your luggage. It’s a bit of a hike. Here in London, the first-floor flat is over the garden flat, don’t you know.”

She led the ragtag group half-carrying, half-dragging luggage out of the hot sun, up the flight of stairs into the welcome coolness of a small, dark, exquisitely paneled foyer. Faye dropped her bags, closed her eyes, and smelled lemon wax on the wood and the sweet perfume of flowers. Cotton lace hung at the hall window, and beneath it stood a small Hepplewhite table covered by a crisp white doily and a vase of lilacs. Faye smiled, relieved. She’d always found that the foyer set the tone, and this one was secure and spotless. When she spied three brass mailboxes by the door, she envisioned her own name over one soon.

Tom tugged at her skirt and furtively pointed to three small, polished brass bells hanging one over each mailbox.

“The bells are quaint,” she said. Quaint, however, didn’t mean safe. “Is there a buzzer system as well? Keyed to the lock? One can’t be too careful.”

“This is a small building, Mrs. O’Neill. There are only three flats.” Mrs. Lloyd sniffed. “The bells do their job. Quite well.”

Silly little noisemakers hardly do the job, Faye thought, scanning the door and windows for locks. “Is there a security system for the building?”

Mrs. Lloyd raised her brows and appeared to have tasted a sour lemon. “This is a reputable area. And crime in England is not as rampant as it is in your country,” she added, her voice suddenly assuming a more aristocratic tone. “I’ve not seen the need.”

“And if I want one for my flat?” Faye persevered.

“You’re welcome to install a system for your flat, if you wish. It would be a personal expense, of course.” Her nostrils flared and she turned sharply to open the door of the flat. “Here we are…”

Faye’s anxiety fled the moment she entered the sunlit front room with its wide curved windows and fourteen-foot, molded ceilings. The smile she felt from the outside of the building overflowed inside with a sense of goodwill. Her heart skipped as she wandered through the airy, comfy rooms, grazing her fingertips along antique tables with scuffed legs and overstuffed chairs with deep depressions in the plump cushions. This was a lived-in house with a mind to comfort before style. This house invited you in to tea. This house welcomed children.

She felt the irresistible tugs of sentimentality she always experienced when reading favorite novels by Jane Austen, or smelling hothouse roses or looking at the smiling faces of loved ones in faded photographs. The dark wood floors were covered with the muted colors of well-worn oriental rugs. Across the room, a gold-filigree clock chimed the quarter hour over an elaborately carved wood mantel. Faye’s heart softened, thinking that this flat was a far cry from the square, unimaginative tract house in Illinois that she’d just left.

Rather, this flat looked exactly like she’d dared to dream it would, like any American would think a proper British middle-class house should look. She could show her children a different lifestyle here, she thought with hope. She prayed she could make them happy.

“It’s perfect,” said Faye.

Mrs. Lloyd smiled in satisfaction. “This house was my mother’s,” she explained, her voice softening. “These were her things. Are, rather. Mrs. Forrester lives upstairs still. This was a single-family home once upon a time, but like so many others in the neighborhood we converted it to what you Americans would call a triplex. Goodness, what… it must have been twenty-five … thirty years ago already. It was a grand place once upon a time, but now, well…” A hint of irritation crossed her face as she followed the sound of someone jumping on the sofa.
“No child! Mustn’t pounce on the sofa.”

“Tom…” Faye followed up. Tom scowled and hurried to her side and leaned against her thigh.
“They’re tired,” she repeated through a tight smile.

“Of course,” replied Jane Lloyd, her gaze shifting to Maddie, who was fingering a collection of porcelain animal figurines on a shelf. “Careful, dear! Those are quite fragile.”

“Maddie…” Faye called out.

Maddie returned the whimsical unicorn and moved on to the books overflowing from the shelf.
“As I was saying,” continued Mrs. Lloyd. “This place was simply much too big for one elderly woman to live in alone. And, of course, the expense of upkeep and all. So I… we decided to convert the house to more manageable units. Mrs. Forrester is a widow, you see.”

“You call your mother, ‘Mrs.’?” asked Maddie, turning her head.

Mrs. Lloyd puffed up her chest. “It’s considered polite, my dear,” she replied, delivering a sidelong, assessing glance at Faye.

“Oh?” said Maddie, not the least bothered by the underlying criticism. “How come you don’t live here with her if she’s so old?”

“Me?” Mrs. Lloyd was taken aback. “Why,” she sputtered, “I must live with Mr. Lloyd now. In our own house. It’s not too terribly far away. I can hop over to check on Mother anytime. She has a visiting nurse, of course, but I manage all her affairs.”

Faye was amused to listen to Mrs. Lloyd’s flustered rationalizations to an eight-year- old child. Guilt, she knew, could wield incredible power.

Mrs. Lloyd gazed around the room, as though mere mention of her mother and the sight of her possessions triggered deep emotions. “I did live here once, of course,” she said, more to herself. “I slept in the upstairs nursery, where my mother lives now. It’s been converted to a lovely large studio, of course.”

“Of course,” Maddie said, echoing Mrs. Lloyd with laughing eyes that belied her serious expression.

Faye cast her a warning glance.

Mrs. Lloyd didn’t notice. She continued, “My two daughters often visited with their grandmother Wendy as well.” Her eyes softened. “I wanted them to sleep in the old nursery, as I once had. Ah, the nursery,” she sighed wistfully. “Such a magical place it was while growing up. The dreams I had. Wonderful dreams!” She sighed again. “My mother could tell the most wonderful stories, you know.”

Tom tugged hard at Faye’s skirt, his eyes entreating. Faye stroked his head and nodded.

“Perhaps your mother would like to tell my children stories? Maddie and Tom adore them. They could visit each other. It might be nice for them all.”

“Oh no,” replied Mrs. Lloyd, drawing herself up. Her tone grew stern once again. “That wouldn’t do at all.”

“Well, of course if you’d rather not ”

“Mrs. Forrester is a very old woman now. I doubt she’s up to telling anyone any more stories. No … no more stories.” A crease of worry crossed her forehead. “You most likely won’t see much of Mrs. Forrester, you see. She isn’t well and keeps to herself. Children upset her.”

Maddie frowned and stuck out her chin.

Mrs. Lloyd sent off sparks of discomfort, and Faye attributed it to the concern of a daughter for her ailing, elderly mother. She also heard in Mrs. Lloyd’s tone the clear message that the children were not to bother old Mrs. Forrester.

“We’ll be sure your mother is left undisturbed,” she assured her.

Mrs. Lloyd turned, smoothing her suit jacket with trembling fingers. “Yes, good. Very good. Well, let’s see the rest of the flat, shall we?”

She led a path to the small but well-appointed red-and-gold dining room with cove ceilings and deliciously elaborate molding. Faye’s exclamation of delight was squelched in her throat when she saw the minuscule kitchen beyond it-no more than a couple of round electric burners atop a cramped metal box stuck in a large closet. She loved to cook and in the sorry space of the kitchen, boiling water would be a challenge. A narrow, spindled staircase, which was once probably employed by the servants, led the way to the second floor of the flat. The two bedrooms were spacious with tall, open windows that fluttered with lace, faded blue and white hydrangea wallpaper, and narrow beds draped in crisp linen and topped with fluffy goose-down pillows. The single, Spartan bathroom, however, had ancient fixtures that dripped water through a choke hold of lime. As she stood in the hall, she thought the house whispered to her of a lifestyle, of values, of dreams long past, and in her wanderings.

“The kitchen is so small…” Maddie blurted.

Faye, hungry for charm in her life, tapped Maddie’s shoulder. “But the sun pours in,” she pointed out. And looking through the window, she saw a charming, if rundown, garden enclosed by a brick wall. “Look, Maddie and Tom. A garden! Go have a look-see,” she said, making the British lingo her own. The children scurried down the stairs with a clatter that had Mrs. Lloyd cringing.

“These two floors were once the main rooms of the house,” Mrs. Lloyd explained as they followed the children down the staircase at a more adult pace. “The nursery was upstairs, and the house’s original kitchen is now in the garden flat. It’s very large indeed. This one is, of course, an add-on.”

“There’s a garden flat?”

“That flat is taken, I’m afraid,” she replied, hearing the hope in Faye’s voice and hastening to dispel it. “A visiting professor from America. Dr. Graham.”

“Oh, an American?”

“Yes, we have a very nice relationship with American companies looking for temporary lodging. The downstairs flat should be available in the fall when he returns to America, but I fear it would be unsuitable for you, Mrs. O’Neill. Though the kitchen is spacious, the rest of the rooms at one time housed the servants and are quite cramped. It isn’t nearly as large or homey as this one.”

Maddie rushed in through the back door. “I like it, Mom! The garden out back is awesome. It’s like that book you read us, you know?”

“The Secret Garden?”

“Yeah.” She hitched up her skirt and brushed the bangs from her eyes. “I guess it’ll be okay here.”

Faye was quick to notice that the sullen shadow that had clouded Maddie’s face of late had dissipated. She was almost smiling, and there was even a sparkle of excitement in her bright blue eyes. Faye’s heart expanded, and she said a quick prayer that her little girl would be happy here.

“What about you, Tom?” Her thin son was scratching his head, looking at the large cabbage roses on the foyer wallpaper with skepticism. He shrugged his shoulders without comment.

Faye took a final look around the narrow flat furnished with old Mrs. Forrester’s personal collection of furniture and bric-a-brac. Each stuffed chair, each piece of Staffordshire porcelain, each pair of heavy blue-and-cream floral curtains suited Faye perfectly. She’d rented this flat without having seen it. That was an enormous act of faith on her part, she who laid her clothes out each night and filled out forms in triplicate. Perhaps this was a good omen. A signal of change. Perhaps, she thought with a shiver of trepidation, a change for the better.

“Thank you, Mrs. Lloyd. The apart… flat should be fine.”

“Good! Very good.” Mrs. Lloyd was all smiles. “Then it’s all complete, except for your signature.” She hurried forward with her clipboard. “Just sign this lease, and we’ll be done with it. Your references were excellent, of course.”

Faye refrained from another round of “of course” and quietly checked the papers fastened to Mrs. Lloyd’s clipboard. Everything seemed in order. The advertising agency had done a fine job finding a suitable place at an affordable rent. In fact, the flat seemed a relative bargain for the price. She would have expected to pay top dollar to live in a building like this in such a lovely neighborhood. Was there something about the place she hadn’t noticed that kept the price down? Other than the kitchen … She shooed away the suspicions from her mind. Wasn’t it her turn to have a little good luck for once?

Mrs. Lloyd smiled when she double checked the signed lease and tucked it neatly back onto her clipboard. “Very good then,” she said, handing Faye an envelope. “In here you will find two sets of keys and various papers explaining features of the flat. If you have any questions, my number is included in your packet. Well then,” she extended her hand. “Very nice to meet you, Mrs. O’Neill. And your children. I hope you will be happy here.”

Unconsciously her gaze darted upward toward the ceiling. “Oh, and if you should hear any rumors or such about Mrs. Forrester, please remember that they are just that. Rumors. She’s perfectly harmless.”

“Harmless?” Faye swung her head around, alarmed.

“A bit eccentric, that’s all. Ta, now!”

Harmless? Eccentric? Suddenly Faye wondered if this flat was such a bargain after

“Mrs. Lloyd! Oh, Mrs. Lloyd,” she called after her.

“Got to run, dear. I have another appointment!” She clutched the clipboard and the lease to her breast, and, with a brief turn of her hand as regal as the Queen Mum’s, she hurried away down the winding lane.

Faye stood on the front stoop and watched the older woman disappear around the corner. A shiver of suspicion trickled down her spine. She could have sworn that was relief she caught in Mrs. Lloyd’s eyes when she signed the lease.

Before reentering the building, Faye cast a curious glance up at the third-floor window. With a start, she saw a small hand dart away and the lace curtain fall back.

The evening wind whistled eerily outside the children’s bedroom window. Faye’s lips were pressed as tightly as her hand around the curtains while she scanned the outside shadows for any movement. Crabapple branches, laden with spring blossoms, swung pendulously in the breeze of an oncoming storm, scattering the white petals like snow.

This was her first night in London. Everything she knew seemed as far away as the stars twinkling in the purple sky. Everything felt so … foreign. She had to make this work. She had nothing left but the clothes in the luggage and a meager bank account, enough to barely scrape by. Faye felt the weight of her responsibilities keenly tonight, the two most important ones lying tucked in their beds beside her. She’d do anything for her babies. Sometimes, you had to give up everything to be free.

Faye sighed deeply, then shut the window and locked it.

“Don’t shut it, Mommy,” complained Maddie from her bed. “You always close the window. We like it open.”

Faye looked at her daughter lying on her side in her twin iron bed. Her chin was propped in her palm, and she was eyeing her with a critical expression more suitable for a forty-year-old woman than an eight-year-old child.

“It looks like rain,” Faye replied quickly.

“Does not.”

“Let’s play it safe,” Faye responded.

“It’s because of Dad, isn’t it?” Her pale skin and sunken eyes attested to the fact that Maddie wouldn’t be fooled any longer.

Faye let the blinds drop with a snap. Sometimes, a perceptive child could be annoying. “Of course not,” she lied. “I just don’t like to keep the windows open anymore. We don’t really know what this neighborhood is like. God knows what’s out there.”

“You mean Dad’s out there.” Maddie’s lips pushed out.

Faye took a deep breath. Yes, she thought. Dad’s out there. Somewhere. She didn’t know how long an ocean would keep him away.

She saw her own fear reflected in her daughter’s eyes. She’d seen that fear too often in the past years. She walked to Maddie’s bed and settled on the mattress, then reached out to stroke a few gold strands from Maddie’s forehead. Such downy hair she has, she thought, feathering away with her fingertips the worry line from her little girl’s brow.

“Yes, Dad’s out there somewhere, but he’s so far away he won’t be able to take you away ever again. No one will.” Faye hugged her and spoke softly in her ear. “Your mama will take care of you.”

Maddie’s eyes flashed with doubt, then she frowned and pushed her mother away, turning her back. Faye felt like crumbling inside, but held firm by force of will. Still, she could almost hear the chink in her armor.

“Tom hates him,” Maddie ground out.

Faye swung her head around to look at her son. He was lying with his arms tucked under his head gazing at the artificial stars glowing on the ceiling. Tom was small for his age, a wisp of a child, pale and silent. She knew that though he chose not to speak, Tom heard every word and understood every nuance. His tiny chin protruded angrily, like a sharp blade. Anger like that was too hard for a child to bear.

“Tom, dear,” she said, “it’s not good to hate. Especially not your father.”

Maddie snorted, and Tom’s scowl deepened.

She couldn’t blame them. Rob had been a horrible father, self-centered, mean, and cheap. And brutal. How could she admonish her son not to hate when she hated Rob O’Neill herself? At thirty-five, she had no qualms admitting it. Yet the children’s therapist had said it wasn’t healthy for them to hate their father, so she bit her tongue and was careful not to bad-mouth her ex in front of them.

“If he tries to take us again, I’ll run away,” vowed Maddie, turning to face her mother again. The circles under her blue eyes deepened against her pale cheeks. “I know how to do it, too.”

“He won’t take you away.”

“But supposing he does. If I just took a cab to the police station, I could call you, right?”

“You won’t have to.”

“I’ll call you,” she continued forcefully, her fingers agitated against her pink coverlet. “The police will pay for it all. They’ve got special money for that, don’t they? Sure,” she answered herself primly. “I’ve got it all straight in my mind. I’ll take care of Tom, too.” Her pitch was rising and Faye ached, listening to her daughter’s young mind work out what-if-it-happened scenarios.
Suddenly Maddie sat up sharply. “They call the police here the Police, don’t they? Is there some special word for that, too? Like telly or petrol?”

“Hush, Maddie,” crooned Faye, placing her finger over Maddie’s tight lips. She looked at her daughter’s fierce expression and wondered for the hundredth time how much she’d seen over the years. Damn Rob! It wasn’t enough that he’d made her own life miserable, but now he’d succeeded in making the lives of his children unhappy as well.

Maddie impulsively hugged her mother and Faye, caught by surprise, wondered which of them needed the hug more. Tears threatened. How could she have allowed her precious children to feel so afraid? From Tom’s bed she heard a whimper.

“Hush, hush,” she said, now hurrying over to Tom and kissing his tense cheeks. He wrapped thin arms around her neck. She could feel his little rib cage pressed against her and the bone of his jaw hard against her own. Her poor, quiet boy.

“You’ve got this all wrong,” she said, forcing lightness into her voice, releasing him with a teasing shake. “It’s my job to worry!” The tension in the room eased as she tickled and tucked Tom back under his blanket. “I’ll make you a pact. We’re going to be happy here. I won’t worry if you won’t worry. Deal?”

“Deal,” replied Maddie for both of them. Faye was rewarded with smiles of relief on their faces. Smiles that didn’t reach their eyes.

Faye knew that telling herself not to worry was like telling the sun not to rise and set. As a single parent, she worried over every detail that concerned them. She worried if they were late coming home from a friend’s, then worried whether she’d checked out the friend carefully enough. At school she was the first in line to pick up the children, then studied the faces of all the adults who lingered in the school halls or yard. Each morning she warned them not to talk to strangers, and each night she checked that every window was locked and that all the dead bolts were secured.

Then, just when she’d begun to listen to the people who told her to loosen up, her worst fear was realized. Rob had tried to snatch the children. She was determined never to lower her guard again.

She patted a pair of rumps and gave final kisses, then double-checked that the windows were locked tight. Fay stood at the door an extra moment and watched as her children settled, yawned noisily, then mumbled good nights. They were just children, she thought. Life for them should be carefree. It wasn’t right that they should be so wary and afraid.

“Good night. Sleep tight,” she sang out, turning off the light. In the corner, the night- light instantly turned on, glowing green. Viewing her children nestled in their beds, Faye quietly vowed, “I promise you, my darlings. I’ll never let anything harm you. Not ever.”