In Coyote County, Christmas means festive lights, the town parade, hot coffee and cinnamon rolls...not creatures from another planet. While a glowing green Peeping Tom with two antennae is a little hard to buy, Libby Hawkins doesn’t believe her former school teacher suffers from either dementia or a runaway imagination. There’s a logical explanation, and she intends to discover it before older woman is placed in a nursing home. After a twelve year absence, Sheriff Jackson Carter returns to Coyote County to clear his father’s name. He never expected to be waylaid in his quest by alien sightings, and it doesn’t help that stubborn Libby Hawkins--his former girlfriend--is determined to meddle in the investigation. He hurt Libby when he left town after his father’s death, but it was for her protection. Now Libby’s stumbled on something dangerous. Can he keep her from harm this time? He doesn’t know, but one thing is certain Christmas in Coyote County has never been so interesting
Libby scrambled to a sitting position, her heart pounding in sequence with the pulsing echo that filled the darkness.
Shotgun blasts. From up the road.
Her foot tangled in the sheet in her haste to exit the bed. The pine plank floor was unforgiving when knee met wood, and she winced at the pain that shot up her leg. Once standing she turned on the bedside lamp and quickly shimmied into her jeans, followed by the pair of boots at the end of her bed.
Her fingers shook as she punched in 911. Waiting, she opened the closet door and removed her jacket, only hesitating a second before seizing her grandpa’s old .22.
A man answered. “Nine-one-one. State your name, location, and your emergency.”
“This is Libby Hawkins on county Road 25. I heard a couple of shotgun blasts that sounded like they came from Maddie Thompson’s place up on Mill Road. Please send someone.” She cradled the receiver and grabbed the keys from atop the dresser. Opening a drawer, she snatched a handful of rifle shells and stuffed them in her pocket.
The truck coughed in the bitter night air. She pumped the gas a couple more times, and it snarled to life. Turning on the lights, she rammed the truck into reverse, narrowly missing her mailbox as she exited the drive.
Ahead, the glow of red and green Christmas lights spilled onto Mill Road. Her foot pushed the gas as she shifted into third. Her stomach lurched and shook with the gravel beneath the tires.
Taking a hard left into the driveway, she hit her brakes. The bright yellow headlights revealed Maddie standing on the front porch of the ranch house, her skinny white legs bare under the old blue robe she had wrapped around her tiny figure. She cradled a shotgun in her arms.
Libby took a deep breath and touched her forehead to the steering wheel. Thank you, Lord. Just seeing her standing there was a wonderful sight. She switched off the truck and grabbed the rifle. Just in case.
She stopped at the bottom of the steps. “What happened? Are you all right?”
Maddie ignored her questions. “Hurry up and get on the porch! It might still be around.”
Libby’s hair prickled on the back of her neck as she stepped up. “What might still be around?”
Maddie shook her head. “I’m not sure what it is. All I know is I scared it real good.”
“Did someone try to break into your house?” A police siren keened in the distance. At least the law would be here in a minute.
“I don’t know if it intended on coming in or not. It was looking in my kitchen window right there when I saw it.”
The siren drew closer. Libby glanced at the window, then down at the floor of the porch. They were standing in pieces of the window pane. “Maddie, you’re barefooted! You’re going to cut yourself to pieces. You stand right there while I get something to sweep up this mess.”
She returned with a broom and an old pair of house shoes that had been inside the door. “Put these on,” she shouted over the sirens. A truck turned into the driveway. From its dashboard, red and blue flashed like strobe lights in disco fashion across the white siding of the house. The sirens stopped and an officer exited the truck. He aimed a flashlight at the porch.
“Is everything OK, Miss Thompson?”
Jackson? Please, please don’t let it be Jackson. “Fine. She’s fine,” Libby answered. If she’d known he was going to show up, she’d have taken time to dress. Or maybe stayed at home. What was the sheriff doing on duty at two a.m.?
There was a long pause. “Libby? Is that you?”
She took a deep breath. “Yes. I came up to check on Maddie. Are you just going to stand out there in the shadows?”
He took a few steps forward. The blinking Christmas lights decorating Maddie’s porch reflected off the handgun he carried. He holstered the pistol and stepped onto the porch.
In the faint glow he still looked much the same. His lanky frame had filled out by a few pounds, and his dark hair was just as wavy as ever, with a few strands standing up on top. He’d wasted enough money on hairspray when he was a teenager. Maybe he’d finally let his hair go its natural way.
“Did somebody try to break into your house, Miss Thompson?” His eyes were trained on the broken glass that Libby had begun to sweep into a pile.
“I shot at ’em before they had a chance, Jack. It was looking in my window when I got up to get a drink.”
“It? Did you see what he...or she looked like?”
“Sure did. You’d better get your police writing pad out and write this down. In fact, we might as well go in and sit down at the table.”
Libby followed Maddie as Jackson came close behind. She hastily ran her fingers through the back of her hair. No doubt it was smashed flat from her pillow. Suddenly, combing her hair seemed more important than it had fifteen minutes ago.
“He was big enough to see in my kitchen window. It couldn’t have been kids.”
Jackson smiled at the tiny eighty-nine-year-old woman. “Miss Thompson, a lot of people, even kids, could stand on your porch and see in your window.”
A deep crimson color crept into the elderly woman’s cheeks. “What kinda kids have huge eyes with glowing circles around them and two long green antennae that glow in the dark? You tell me that, Jackson Carter!”
He cleared his throat and shifted his weight in the chair. “Well…ma’am…”
Maddie narrowed her eyes. “You don’t believe me, do you? You don’t believe I really saw such a creature!” She turned to Libby. “You believe me, don’t you?”
Libby self-consciously pulled her coat closed over her flannel pajama top and turned her gaze to the broken pane of the kitchen window.
Tiny shards of sharp, shimmering splinters dusted the kitchen countertop and sparkled in the old cast iron sink. A sprinkling glittered the floor as well. A couple of red Christmas balls from the little artificial tree on the counter had also been casualties. She’d have to make sure and clean all of that up before she went home.
Libby stole a quick glance at the sheriff, and then faced her neighbor. “I know you saw something...or someone...looking in your window. It’s just that you’d been asleep and sometimes…”
“So you’re taking his side, huh?” Maddie looked at Jackson and pointed a tiny, bony finger at him. “I believe it from you, all right. Ever since you painted all your Valentine hearts white when you were ten years old, I knew you didn’t have a bone of imagination in your body.”
“Now ma’am, I didn’t say—”
“And you, Libby! I’ve known you since you were knee-high to my biggest settin’ hen. I never thought you’d turn on me!”
Libby chewed the inside of her cheek. “I didn’t say I thought you made it up. I just—”
“Well you might as well have.”
The words stung Libby’s heart. Maddie was a sweet neighbor and a good friend. The fact that she was eighty-nine and a little bit deaf and blind was factoring in to her assessment of the situation. No doubt it was influencing Jackson’s, too.
“Well, you both might as well go on home. And don’t bother with any report. I don’t want everybody down at the Sheriff’s office laughing at me. But if it shows up again, I’m gonna get him.” She picked up the shotgun she’d leaned against the wall of the house.
“I’ll have to make the report, ma’am. It’s policy.”
“Humph! Guess you’ll do what you gotta do.”
Jackson taped a piece of cardboard over the shattered pane, while Libby swept up the glass in the kitchen. Moments later Maddie locked the door behind them as they stepped on the porch. Libby winced when the door slammed extra hard.
She pulled the key from her jacket pocket, and Jackson followed her to the truck. “Do you think she’s OK?” he asked.
She laughed. “If she’s not, I dare you to do something about it. She’s probably the most independent person in the county. I know I’ve only been back from Denver a few months now, but she’s just like she always was. It’s been twenty years since she was my fourth grade teacher, but she can still put fear in my heart when she clears her throat a certain way.”
Jackson grinned, his perfect teeth flashing white in the dim light. “Yeah. And that little beady-eyed stare she has. I always wanted to crawl under my desk when she looked at me like that.” His gaze went back to the front door of the house. “Still. I can’t help but worry about her. She’s always been pretty sensible.”
Libby opened the door of the rusty Ford, feeling it was time to get out of the company of Jackson Carter. Her heart was starting to remember things she’d put behind her. Stirring up emotions she’d vowed to lock away for good after things fell apart. “I’ll check on her the first thing in the morning.” She glanced at her watch. “Which is about five hours away.”
He cleared his throat and put his hand on the truck door. “Libby, I just want to say how sorry I was to hear about your husband. I’ve been meaning to stop by and see you. To tell you….but things just keep getting in the way. And well…”
She smiled tightly as she climbed in the truck. “I could say the same, Jackson. Your office is right there in town, and I haven’t stopped by to say hello.” She swung the door closed and rolled down the window. “I saw you in the back of the church Sunday night, and I was going to talk to you after service, but you were already gone.”
This conversation was lasting way too long, she decided. Pleasant chitchat wasn’t exactly comfortable after the past.
He reached into his shirt pocket. “Yeah. I rarely make it through a whole service without some emergency coming up. If you don’t mind, would you give me a call after you see Miss Thompson tomorrow? I’d appreciate it. I’ll be in the office by two.”
“Sure.” She took the card he held out to her. Their fingers brushed, and she felt that familiar ache she hadn’t encountered since high school. She bit down hard on her lip to squelch the response. The Libby and Jackson fairytale lived only in the past, like a story read one too many times.
Jackson had slammed the cover shut. Part of her had never forgiven him for breaking her heart.
She tucked the card into her jacket pocket. “I may stay with her for a while in the morning—if she’ll let me. I’ll give you a call when I get back home.”
He nodded and waved as she backed out of the driveway.
Libby turned the lights to bright and smacked the gear shift. Pain shot through her hand, and she winced. He was nothing but a friend from the past, a little heartache long over. Puppy love. That’s what grandma had called it. So what was wrong with her? Lack of sleep? A twinge in her heart whispered something else. But she had no intention of listening.
His dark hair and smoky eyes flashed across her memory. For years, she tried to push him from her thoughts, not that it had worked until she met Ben. Turning into her driveway, she reminded herself of all the reasons to keep things the way they were now, without poking around in the past. She was finally getting back all she had lost. She was finally starting to feel like a living being again. Jackson Carter would do nothing but complicate her life, and she wasn’t going to let that happen.