Sucking in a harsh breath, Molly Stewart shot straight up in bed from a deep sleep, chest heaving in panic like always when she had one of those dreams. The kind that were more of a curse than a blessing.
Because they usually came true.
Sweat beaded her forehead as she stared unblinking in the dark, eyes dry sockets of shock. All she could hear was her own wheezing while she gasped for air, almost drowning out the violent throbbing of blood in her ears.
“Miss Lilly tends to go outside when she walks in her sleep,” Chase Griffin had warned when he’d hired Molly as a temporary caretaker and companion for his elderly landlady, “so it’s best to crack your door to hear her if she does.”
“No!” Hurling the covers aside, Molly vaulted from her bed, crying out as she stubbed her toe on her way to the door, the nightmare far too real to be ignored. “God, please, let her be safe …” Fingers quivering, she lashed the door all the way open so hard, it banged against the wall as she bolted through, her breathing as jagged as her nerves. Shooting down the hallway to Miss Lilly’s room, her body seized at the sight of Miss Lilly’s open door.
A door she always kept closed at night.
Molly’s stomach bottomed out when she saw the empty bed.
“Nooooo!” Her groan followed her as she flew down the steps, her wide-eyed gaze darting to the sliding doors that led to the lake.
“Now, where in sweet glory are you a-rushin’ off to, young lady?”
Molly froze on the bottom step, heart banging against her ribs as she peered into the dark kitchen lit only by a nightlight. A shaft of moonlight glinted off little circles bobby-pinned all over a small white head. Expelling a long, wavering breath, Molly put a shaky hand to her chest to calm her racing heart, her ribcage still heaving. A knowing smile hovered over Miss Lilly’s pursed lips while she nonchalantly nibbled a cookie, the eighty-eight-year-old, silver-haired imp sitting in the dark drinking from a teacup like it was noon instead of midnight.
“I … uh … heard a noise,” Molly managed after a hard swallow that slid into a shaky, if not sheepish, smile. “Thought you might be sleepwalking again,” she said, forcing a light tone while she pulled out a chair. She shook off the fear that had gripped her heart, unwilling to divulge the nightmare that had sent her bounding into the night. A shiver rattled her spine.
Nightmares that were often omens of doom.
Sinking into the spindle-back chair like her bones were made of mush, she figured it was more likely for her to have a stroke or heart attack than the patient she’d been hired to care for. The edge of her smile hitched up. Or a sprained ankle.
“She sprained her left ankle a few months back while sleepwalking,” Chase had explained, “tripping over gardening tools while on the back deck. So when she sprained her other ankle last week missing the last step in the middle of the night, we knew she needed live-in help.”
He’d smiled that little-boy smile that said he wanted a big, big favor. The same smile she’d never been able to resist when they were good friends in the military. And the one that made her wish he wasn’t both her associate pastor and married. To a girl named Cat, who had quickly become one of Molly’s best friends since she’d moved back to Savannah.
“And,” he continued with a wiggle of brows, “since you need someplace to stay other than your parents while you look for a place of your own and you’re a nurse to boot, well”—he shrugged—“Cat and I both thought this arrangement would be ideal.”
Ideal. Yep. That pretty much fit. Especially since Molly’s fiancé—a police detective she worked with at the Charleston P.D.—had cheated on her with her roommate.
Three stinkin’ months before the wedding.
The moment she’d walked in on them making out—on the couch in her own apartment, no less—she knew life would never be the same. Returning unexpectedly from a weekend trip to her folk’s house in Savannah, she’d been stunned and wounded, deciding right then and there—despite their pleas and apologies—to leave everything behind.
So she’d headed back to Savannah and her family for a fresh start, desperate to find an apartment as soon as humanly possible.
Because her parents were driving her crazy.
After all, it was no secret why she and her two sisters had moved away after college. Not that her parents weren’t great—they were. Great marriage. Great home. Great support.
If one could overlook parental kissy-face, that is, between two adults who acted more like teenagers than parents. Then there were their mother’s matchmaking tendencies, which drove her and her sisters up the wall. From endless awkward fixups and nonstop probing about their love-lives, to not-so-subtle commentary about her longing for grandchildren, her mother couldn’t seem to help herself. “Is it a crime to want my daughters to be as happy as we are?” she’d always ask, and it took everything within Molly not to scream, YES! Because after chronic bad relationships endured by she and her sisters over the years—including the breakup with Tyler—she feared the bar was just too high. The last thing she wanted was to face day in and day out the fear that she’d never have what her parents did.
And Chase knew it. Reverting to puppy-dog eyes, he’d apparently taken her silence for a negative response. “Come on, Mol, this will give you a break before you look for a job and an apartment. Plus, it would be a really Christian thing to do for a fragile little old lady in need, your devoted pastor, and an old buddy from the Navy. Besides,” he’d said with a crook of his brow, “living with Miss Lilly will give you lots of time to curl up on a comfy chaise in front of the lake to indulge in your secret obsession—reading all those cozy mysteries you love and maybe even writing your own like you’ve always wanted to do.”
Her eyes had narrowed. She’d give him one thing—he had the arm-twisting thing down real good. She’d stifled a grunt. Probably Chapter Three in the Pastor Manual.
“Magnesium.” Miss Lilly popped up from her chair with a whole lot more energy than Molly at 12:15 a.m., the old woman’s spry movement and gravelly voice disrupting Molly’s reverie.
“What?” Molly blinked as she watched her patient—who’d become more like a grandmother over the last month—snatch a cup from her cupboard and fill it with hot water from her tea kettle. Steam rose as she steeped the tea infuser up and down in the cup before bustling back to the table.
“Magnesium, I said.” Clunk. Miss Lilly set the cup down none too gently, promptly retrieving a cookie for Molly from her famous pig cookie jar. “The way you were just a-starin’ off into space, missy, I thought you might be the one sleepwalkin’.”
She delivered a wink as she sat back down, grinning like a pixie over the rim of her cup. “And for your information, young lady, I haven’t sleepwalked since Doc put me on magnesium. Flat-out alarmed at how low I was, he said, claiming that can trigger a body roaming at night in their PJ’s.”
Her eyes twinkled as she took a sip of her tea, looking like a tiny leprechaun for all her emerald-green satin duster and wrinkled grin. Which certainly fit. Despite her backwoods air, Miss Lilly was as Irish as the Blarney Stone itself, according to Chase, married to a full-blood Irishman, no less. And not just any Irishman, apparently, but the only grandson from a prominent Irish family in Savannah. A family that had not only owned the lake and all the rental cabins around it, but almost a thousand acres of prime Georgia land as well, which now belonged to Miss Lilly.
Molly blew out a weary sigh and bit into her cookie, pretty sure she needed way more than magnesium. She bit back a grunt as she pushed her tea away with a sad smile. Like sleep. “Thanks for the cookie, Miss Lilly, but I’ll pass on the tea. Haven’t been sleeping all that well, so the last thing I need is caffeine.”
The twinkle in the old woman’s eyes softened with sympathy. “Still frettin’ over that two-timin’ polecat, sweetheart?”
Tyler. The polecat who stole her heart. Her smile took a tilt. Otherwise known as the “womanizing skunk lower than a snake belly in a wagon rut,” according to Miss Lilly. Nope, at least it wasn’t about Tyler tonight like it’d been the first few months she’d moved back to Savannah. “No, just restless, I guess.”
“Then dunk that tea ball real good and drink up, missy, because that there is my own magic potion for sleepin’ like a baby.”
“Really?” Molly leaned to sniff at the tea. “What’s in it?”
“All natural things from God’s green earth, don’t you know. Chamomile, lavender, magnolia bark, blackberry leaves, and what not.”
Molly dunked the tea ball up and down several times before she finally took a sip, the warm taste of spearmint soothing her nerves. “Mmm, it’s good. ‘Whatnot’ must be spearmint.”
“Yes, ma’am, and blue skullcap.”
Molly blinked, the tea pooling in her mouth. She swallowed it in a hard gulp. “Skullcap?” she said weakly, the name immediately conjuring images of death, which did not bode well for her peace of mind. Not after the dream she’d just had.
“Yessiree,” Miss Lilly said, “calms a body down and quells that restless spirit so you can rest in peace.”
Taking another healthy glug of the tea, Molly figured she needed a little quellin’ right about now.
Over keeping Miss Lilly safe.
And over a nightmare about drowning that felt way too real …
Rest in peace. Eyes slamming closed, she upended her tea in one jerky bottoms-up, hoping and praying that it related to Molly and a good night’s sleep.