Autumn By the Sea by Melissa Tagg

For once, Chicago’s heady, heavy wind—stubborn and pummeling and rife with autumn cold—came to Sydney’s aid, pushing her from behind as if aware her taut lungs and straining legs might give out at any second.

But it was the fear that kept her running.

She clutched her purse to stop its bouncing against her thigh and veered around a corner, past the bakery—the sticky, sweet smell of Nikola’s famed caramel rolls doing nothing to comfort her. Not with the stranger’s pounding steps growing closer.

Half a block. Just half a block to the ancient three-story brick building she’d called home for nearly twelve years now. Its crumbling exterior and overgrown hedges, the creaking front door with the peeling paint and pointless crooked brass knocker had never looked so welcoming.

Her shoes clacked over the cracked sidewalk, and she resisted the urge to crane her head, twist her gaze to the man she’d first spotted watching her back at the restaurant. Initially, she’d taken him for a regular old creeper, his stare following her around the labyrinth of tables and booths as she took orders, delivered plates of Italian food, prayed for good tips.

And yet, his dark eyes hadn’t leered so much as just . . . studied. Why was that even more unnerving than the ogles of other uncouth men?

Even so, she hadn’t thought too much of it. Had simply thanked her lucky stars the man’s booth wasn’t in her zone of tables and finished out her shift.

But she should’ve known not to count on luck.

“Some kids don’t get lucky.” Why was it the social worker’s raspy voice, tinged with pity, always found the worst times to resurface?

Yeah, well, some adults don’t get lucky, either.

No. Some adults left their workplace with sore feet and a dogging, too-familiar fatigue, only to feel a niggle of alarm halfway home. Only to slow her steps and turn around and see the same man from that corner booth.

Chilly air scraped her cheeks as she willed her legs to stay in motion. So close.

Has to be someone Micah knows. He’s finally gotten in too deep and I’m about to pay the price and—

Realization swooped in as she passed the once-auspicious Victorian next door to her building. The thumping steps from behind—they’d quieted. Or maybe stopped altogether. She slowed only the slightest, allowed herself a glance over her shoulder.

Nothing. No one.

Just the swish and rustle of the weeping willow in front of the Victorian and an empty sidewalk. And from somewhere down and across the street, the distant voices and laughter of the kids who were always outside kicking around a soccer ball.

Had the man given up? Decided she wasn’t worth the pursuit?

Her pace slackened to a quick walk as she turned onto the narrow cement path that led up to her boxy apartment building. Maybe the man had gotten word from a higher-up who’d called off the chase. Lord knew the kind of people Micah had gotten involved with generally didn’t do their own dirty work.

Or perhaps this didn’t have anything to do with Micah. Perhaps he’d been serious last time she’d talked to him three, maybe four, weeks ago. Perhaps he’d meant what he’d said about starting fresh and—

“Sydney Rose?”

A deep voice, winded but firm, came from behind her, along with a hand on her arm.

She whirled. Him. Where . . . how had he . . . ? He must’ve cut through the lawn in front of the Victorian, hidden by the willow, the grass quieting his steps.

Why—why?—had she stopped running? She should’ve raced to her building’s front door, flung herself inside, and refused to slow down until she’d reached her cramped apartment, turned both locks, and slid the tiny chain into place.

“Get away from me.” She fumbled with her purse. “I’ve got mace.”

He dropped his hand, one corner of his mouth quirking. “Thanks for the warning, but you won’t need it.”

She backed toward the building until her heels knocked into the first of three concrete steps leading to the front door. When she stumbled, the man reached out for her arm again.

With a flinch, she jerked away, heart hammering. “I said get—”

“I’m not here to hurt you. If you just would’ve stopped the first time I called your name—”

She wrenched away, instinct pulsing through her as she booted her foot toward the man’s knee, his oomph letting her know the kick had done at least a little good. She whacked him with her purse, then scrambled up the steps.

“Please, I just want to talk—”

She yanked the door open and raced inside. For possibly the first time since she’d moved into this building, she didn’t wrinkle her nose at the faint, ever-present scent of the cloves her landlord smoked or wince at the thumping bass coming from 1B. She barreled up the carpeted staircase and reached her door in seconds, jutting the key into the lock with shaky hands.

Finally, pulse still skittering, she barricaded herself in her apartment—turned both locks and slipped the chain into place. Breathe, Syd. Just breathe.

Should she call the police? Or simply wait and hope the man went away? If only she kept a baseball bat by the front door. Should’ve kicked him harder. Or better yet, kneed him in the groin. Francie at the restaurant kept trying to get her to join her for a self-defense class. She really ought to take the chef up on it, especially if Micah couldn’t get his act together—

The knock bellowed, shoving her heart into a tailspin all over again. Her groan was lost in the sound of a second knock and the man’s frustrated voice.

“Sydney, please, I’m not here to harm you. I just need to talk to you for a few minutes. I’m sorry I alarmed you.”

“Would you just go away? I don’t know who you are. If you think I’m going to open my door—”

“My name’s Wilder Monroe. I’m a private investigator. Here, I’ve got my badge and my license. I’m going to slide them under the door, okay?”

A moment later, the items brushed over the faded hardwood floor and appeared at her feet. She ran her clammy palms over the front of her work uniform—white collared shirt, black tie, black pants—and forced an exhale as she bent. The glint of the brass badge drew her focus first, the words private investigator in blue above an emblem.

Could be fake.

Sure it could. Same with the paper she picked up and skimmed. How was she supposed to know what an official private eye’s license looked like? She hadn’t even known P.I.s had licenses. Or badges. Wilder Matthew Monroe. Licensed in the State of Maine.

Maine? Why in the world—

“I feel like I should reiterate that I’m not here to hurt you in any way.” The door muffled his voice, but not enough to hide his exasperation. “I shouldn’t have chased you. I’m a little new at this. I should’ve just waited until you were home and knocked on your door like a normal person. Or spoken to you at the restaurant.”

Huh, apparently his exasperation was self-directed. “Or better yet, you could’ve dispensed with the creepy staring act in the first place.”

Was that actually a chuckle? “As I said, I just need a few minutes of your time.”

Hesitation rooted her in place. She glanced at the badge and paperwork again. They looked legit. But if Micah’s activities had taught her anything, it was that appearances were rarely trustworthy—not much of anything was trustworthy.

She closed her eyes for a long moment, the warmth of her apartment and the lingering aroma of the lavender vanilla candle she’d lit last night wrapping around her and giving her space to breathe, to think. To wish, just for a moment, that this little haven she’d created for herself—four small rooms filled with color and secondhand furniture—was enough to shut out everything else.

That she’d never become this person who expected the worst. The old Sydney would’ve lit with unbridled curiosity at the thought of a private eye showing up on her doorstep. The old Sydney’s imagination would’ve conjured up all manner of exciting, intriguing tidings.

But the Sydney she’d become—the one with two jobs and never enough income, the one whose future felt almost as blurry as her past—had, somewhere along the way, forgotten how to hope.

With a sigh, she opened her eyes and straightened. She shook her head, her red hair long since limp after a nine-hour shift at the restaurant, and moved closer to the door, took a breath, and twisted first the deadbolt then the lock on the knob. Chain still in place, she inched the door open a sliver—just enough to see the man’s eyes peering at her from the hallway.

He was younger than she’d realized. Probably only had a few years on her—maybe mid-thirties at the oldest. His hair, wind-tousled with a slight wave, matched his eyes—a deep, dark brown. She probably shouldn’t smile at the faint dusty print on the right leg of his jeans where she’d kicked him, but, well, she smiled.

But she squelched it quickly enough and found her voice. “Is this about Micah?”

He reached down to rub his knee. “Your former foster brother? No.”

“How do you know—?”

“Miss Rose, there’s very little I don’t know about you—about your current circumstances, anyway. Which, hearing myself say it, likely sounds a little stalker-y.” He held up both palms in a surrender pose. “But like I said, I’m a P.I. Knowing things about people is what I do. Can I come in?”

“You just admitted to sounding like a stalker. You gawked at me for an hour while I was working. You chased me six blocks. So forgive me if I’m not totally up to playing hostess at the moment.”

Another chuckle. “Fair enough. I can talk fine from here. I’ll try to sum this up as succinctly as I can. I work for a woman named Margaret Muir.” He took a breath, one lock of dark hair falling over his forehead. “And I think you might be her granddaughter.”