For the last seven years, Erin Donahue stared out her window at the empty dirt road, searching for something she never quite understood. A ghost road that blew only dust and rock to her hideaway home in Destiny, Illinois. Some name—Destiny. So far, she hadn’t seen any evidence of fate showing up in her life, which was just fine. Her destiny was documenting life one click at a time.
The windmill in the southeast rotated at a zero-chance tornado speed. Chimes tinkled from the lip of the cabin—a gift from her sister to ward off the silence. Country silence? No. Cabin silence? Nope. Silence of the lonely…the ones who denied a part of themselves to the world. At least that’s what her married sister had said.
But she wasn’t lonely. And she embraced the world through her camera, so she had shrugged it off. So what if she gave herself permission twice a day to cry. Nothing wrong with that. Regret was part of life, and everyone had it. And at thirty-seven, she’d earned it.
Some might even say she was punishing herself, but that was their business.
The autumn foliage called out to her, begging her to capture it for eternity into digital protection. She finished her coffee and sprinted to her room to change and grab her camera.
Her Nikon waited for her like a loyal friend, hot for the next photo. She tied her ash blond hair into a loose knot. Wiggling into a pair of torn jeans, a red T-shirt and old sneakers, she pulled the thick strap around her neck as her last accessory.
She trotted down the three steps of her porch and into the natural photo set. The camera was set in burst mode, enabling her to take quick shots of the dancing leaves. Ten successive clicks promised her at least one. The September heat disguised as summer during the day would turn into a frosty night, preparing for the Midwest winter.
The leaves were the perfect model, cooperating for her as she bent and angled the camera just so. A Monarch fluttered past her, insisting she focus and shoot. Click. Got it.
She didn’t know what she’d do if she couldn’t take pictures. It saved her from a black hole so far and wide, and for that she was grateful. She even had a name for her camera—Sally—her love.
As Erin looked through the viewfinder, a black Silverado passed through it. She jerked her face away from the camera to get a better look. “What the…” The pickup truck rumbled up her country lane, kicking back gravel, thinking someone here was looking for a visit.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
She dropped her camera to her chest and strode up the lane, waving her arms with a determined look to cast them away. Strangers didn’t just drive up her road. Maybe he was lost.
The monster truck rolled to a halt one foot in front of her, causing her heart to pound. Never having seen this truck around town, she looked up at the high cab looming down at her. Her shotgun came to mind, but the driver’s door opened too fast, a denim leg and brown boot dangling past the door before a tree of a man stepped out, claiming her land with one step.
“Erin Donahue?” the stranger asked. He regarded her over his door, eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. His dark chestnut hair rustled in the dusty wind.
“And you are?” She held her hand over a squinted glare, blinded by the sun. There was something about him—the way he held his body, the deep tone in his voice, and the way he said her name. How did she know him?
“I’m insulted you don’t remember. It’s Slade…Slade Callahan?” A hint of anger brewed beneath his reminder.
“Slade?” Sweat trickled down her back.
“Todd’s younger brother. Why did you go into hiding after breaking his heart? Seems like something the guilty might do. And you are one hard woman to track down, you know that?” He took his sunglasses off, revealing dark blue eyes—narrowed eyes above a hardened set jaw.
She nodded. “Slade—yes. And that was a long time ago. I don’t need to explain anything to you or anyone else. Now please leave my property before I call the sheriff.” She remembered Slade being home on leave, now a fully grown man with a certain ruggedness about him. This man was not the clean-shaven, crewcut hair, flirty young man she had known back then. No. This was a harder copy version. A man she didn’t know anymore.
“There’s some unfinished family business since your cowardly act.”
Heat burned her chest, flaming her face. “Can’t someone end a relationship without being stoned to death?”
“Not if that someone didn’t have a good enough reason. In my eyes, you didn’t, and it’s haunted my brother ever since.”
Hit by another stone, she flinched. “And now you’re his spokesman?”
“That’s right.” His features softened for a moment, as if in pain, but then returned.
She scoffed, looking at the ground before back at him. This guy was unbelievable. He had to be, what—thirty-three now? He was four years younger, but carried the hard edge of a Marine, if he still served. “I don’t owe you a damn thing, Slade.” She grabbed her camera and pointed it at him. “Smile—it’ll be the last one you ever have if you don’t leave.” She clicked away, forcing him to put his sunglasses back on and slip inside, slamming the door shut.
Erin lowered it after a few more shots, watching him back out, his gaze locked with hers. Did he think he was intimating her? A silent threat that this wasn’t over? The thought infuriated her. No one ever bothered her out here. This was her home, her sacred grounds from the hustle of the city and cliquey small town.
As she strutted past overly grown weeds, she bent and snatched the grass blades out already dying, and threw them back into the earth. What was the point? Clouds drifted across the purple horizon, engulfing the sun, and a low rumble in the grim sky. She picked up her pace and darted for the door before the rain made its appearance.
Right after she stepped inside, it released, a hard thud slapping the ground like gunshots. She slammed the door and leaned against it, bringing her hands to her face. As she raked her fingers through her hair, scratching her head to free the headache forming at the base of her neck, she closed her eyes.