A Soldier's Homecoming

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A Soldier's Homecoming


A Soldier’s Homecoming Rachel Lee


   

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   RACHEL LEE was hooked on writing by the age of twelve and practised her craft as she moved from place to place all over the United States. She now resides in Florida and has the joy of writing full-time.

   Her bestselling Conard County series has won the hearts of readers worldwide and it’s no wonder, given her own approach to life and love. As she says: “Life is the biggest romantic adventure of all – and if you’re open and aware, the most marvellous things are just waiting to be discovered.”

   

   To Mom, who got me started. I will always miss you

   Deputy Constance Halloran drove along the U.S. highway toward Conard City, taking her time, keeping an eye on traffic, glad her shift was almost over.

   Spring had settled over the county, greening it with recent rains, filling the air with the fragrance of wildflowers and the scent she thought of as green. With her window rolled down, the aroma wafted into her car, earth’s special perfume.

   Today had been a lazy day, an easy shift. She’d had only one call about a minor theft at one of the ranches; then she’d spent most of the day patrolling her sector. She hadn’t written any speeding tickets, which was unusual. Even the traffic seemed to be enjoying a case of spring fever.

   Maybe she would light the barbecue tonight and make some hamburgers. Sophie, her seven-year-old daughter, loved grilled hamburgers beyond everything, and loved the opportunity to eat outside at their porch table almost as much. Of course, the evenings could still get chilly, but a sweater would do.

   The idea pleased her, and she began to hum a lilting melody. A semi passed her from the opposite direction and flashed his lights in a friendly manner. Connie flashed back, her smile broadening. Some days it felt good just to be alive.

   Another mile down the road, she spotted a man standing on the shoulder, thumb out. At once she put on her roof lights, gave one whoop of her siren and pulled over until he was square in the view of her dash camera. He dropped his arm and waited for her.

   A couple of cars passed as she radioed dispatch with her position and the reason for her stop.

   “Got it, Connie,” Velma said, her smoke-frogged voice cracking. “You be careful, hear?”

   “I always am.”

   Glancing over to make sure she wouldn’t be opening her door into traffic, Connie climbed out and approached the man.

   As she drew closer, she realized he looked scruffy and exotic all at once. Native American, she registered instantly. Long black hair with a streak of gray fell to his shoulders. He also had a beard, unusually thick for someone of his genetic background. Dark eyes looked back at her. The thousand-yard stare. She’d seen it before.

   For an instant she wondered if he was mentally ill; then her mind pieced together the conglomeration of clothing he wore, and she identified him as a soldier, or maybe a veteran. His pants were made of the new digitized camouflage fabric, but his jacket was the old olive drab. As she approached, he let a backpack slip from his shoulder to the ground, revealing the collar of his cammie shirt, and she saw the black oak leaf of a major.

   At once some of her tension eased. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said courteously, “but hitchhiking is illegal.”

   He nodded, his gaze leaving her and scanning the surrounding countryside. “Sorry, I forgot. Been out of the country.”

   “I guessed that. Whereabouts?”

   His inky gaze returned to her. “Afghanistan. I’ll just keep walking.”

   “No,” she said impulsively, breaking all the rules in an instant. “I’ll drive you to town. How come you don’t have a car?”

   Something like amusement, just a hint, flickered swiftly across his face. “I need to be home a while longer before I’ll be comfortable behind the wheel.”

   She let that go, sensing the story behind it wasn’t something he was about to share. “Well, hop in. I’m going off shift, so unless something happens, I’ll have you in town in twenty minutes.”

   “Thanks.”

   He hefted his backpack and followed her to the car. Breaking more rules, she let him sit in front with her, rather than in the safer backseat cage. Even in the large SUVs the department preferred, he seemed too big. Over six feet, easily, and sturdily built.

   She reached for her microphone and called the dispatcher. “I’m back on the road, Velma, on my way in. I’m giving someone a ride.”

   Velma tutted loudly. “You know you shouldn’t.”

   “It’s a special case.”

   “Whatever.” Velma sounded disgusted in the way of a woman used to having her good advice ignored.

   Connie signed off and smiled at her passenger. “Velma is the department’s mother.”

   He nodded, saying nothing. A few seconds later they were back on the road, heading down the highway toward town. They passed a herd of cattle on a gentle slope, grazing amicably alongside a group of deer. In places the barbed-wire fences were totally hidden in a tangle of tumbleweed. Indian paintbrush dotted the roadside with scarlet and orange, as if the colors had been scattered by a giant hand.

   “It’s beautiful country,” Connie remarked. “Are you staying or just passing through?”

   “A bit of both.”

   “You have friends here?”

   “Sort of. Some folks I want to see, anyway.”

   She opened her mouth to ask who, then swallowed the words. He didn’t seem to want to talk much—maybe with good reason, considering where he’d been. She thought of Billy Joe Yuma, her cousin Wendy’s husband, and the problems he still suffered sometimes from Vietnam. This guy’s wounds had to be fresher.

   When she spoke again, it was to ask something less invasive. “Ever been here before?”

   “No.”

   Well, that gambit wasn’t going to work. Stifling a sigh, she gave her attention back to the road and tried to ignore the man beside her. If he stayed in town for more than twenty-four hours, someone would learn something about him and word would pass faster than wildfire. The county had grown quite a bit in the past fifteen years, but it hadn’t grown much. People still knew everything about their neighbors, and strangers still attracted a lot of curiosity and speculation.

   However, it went against the grain for her to treat a stranger with silence. Around here, folks generally made strangers feel welcome.

   “I can take you to a motel if you want.”

   “Sheriff’s office is fine.”

   “Okay.” A scattering of houses near the road announced that Conard City now lay less than ten miles ahead. “My uncle used to be sheriff here,” she said by way of keeping a friendly conversation going.

   “Yeah?”

   At last a sign of curiosity. “He retired a couple of years ago,” she explained. “He and my aunt are in South America and are later going on a cruise to Antarctica. It blows my mind to even think of it.”

   That elicited a chuckle. “It wouldn’t be my choice.”

   “Mine, either, right now. Maybe when I retire I’ll see things differently.”

   “You never know.”

   She tossed him another glance and saw that he appeared a bit more relaxed.

   “So,” he said after a moment, “you followed in your uncle’s footsteps?”

   “Eventually. I grew up in Laramie. Then I moved to Denver.”

   “How’d that work out?”

   “Well, I got my degree, got married, got divorced, decided I didn’t like the big bad world all that much and came back to be a deputy.”

   “What’s that like?”

   “I love it.” She glanced at him again, wondering what had suddenly unlocked the key to his mouth. But he seemed to have gone away again, looking out the windows, watching intently. So on guard. Expecting trouble at any instant.

   And there were no magic words to cure that. Nothing but time would do that, if even that could succeed.

   “I worked as a cop in the city,” she said after a moment. “It’s better here.”

   “Why?”

   “Less crime. More helping people.”

   “I can see that.”

   She reckoned he could.

   “So do you like your new sheriff?”

   “Gage Dalton,” she supplied. “Yeah. He can be hard to get to know, but once you do, he’s great. He used to be DEA, then he came here and my dad hired him as a criminologist. We never had one before.”

   “That is small-town.”

   She smiled. “Yeah. It’s great.”

   They reached the edge of town, and soon were driving along Main Street toward the courthouse square and the storefront sheriff’s office. On the way, she pointed out the City Diner.

   “Eat there if you want rib-sticking food. Despite the sign out front, everyone calls it Maude’s diner. You won’t find high-class service, but if you’re not worried about cholesterol, sugar or salt, there’s no better place to get a meal or a piece of pie.”

   “I’ll remember that.”

   She pulled into her slot in front of the office and turned off the ignition. Before he climbed out, she turned in her seat to face him directly. “I’m Connie Halloran,” she said.

   “Ethan. Thanks for the ride.”

   Then he slipped out of the vehicle with his backpack and began to stride toward the diner. She watched him until he disappeared inside, then shook her head and climbed out, locking the car behind her.

   Inside the office, Velma arched thin brows at her. “You’re still alive, I see.”

   “I’m not totally stupid.”

   “Just save the excuses until your uncle gets back.”

   Connie shook her head and hung her keys from the rack near Velma’s dispatch station. “I’m all grown up, Velma.”

   “That won’t matter a flea dropping on a compost heap if anything happens to you. I don’t want to be the one explaining to Nate what you did.”

   Connie leaned over the counter, grinning at the older woman. “I’m armed and dangerous, Velma.”

   All that earned was a snort. “Damn near everyone around here is armed. It don’t keep bad things from happening.”

   “Nothing bad happened. Now I’m going to sign out and go home to grill burgers for my daughter and my mother.”

   But Velma stopped her. “Who’d you give a ride to?”

   “Some guy named Ethan. He says he has some friends around here.”

   “And you believe that?”

   Connie sighed. “Why wouldn’t I? He’s wearing a major’s oak leaf on his shirt collar, and he says he just got back from Afghanistan. Not your ordinary bad-guy disguise.”

   Velma’s expression soured. “For somebody who patrolled the streets in Denver, you’re awfully trusting.”

   “No, I just know how well I can take care of myself.”

   Velma’s snort followed her out the door.

   Gage Dalton, Conard County’s new sheriff—for three years now, which he guessed meant he would always be the new sheriff—sat at his desk reviewing reports, his scarred face smiling faintly as he remembered how Nate Tate used to complain about the paperwork. Nate had been sheriff for thirty-five years, a long time to complain about paperwork. As for Gage, he would count himself lucky if twenty years from now he was still the new sheriff and still doing paperwork.

   Not that folks gave him a hard time or anything. It was, he supposed, just their way of distinguishing him from Nate. He signed another report and added it to the stack of completed work.

   Not much happened in this county on a routine basis. Cattle disappeared or were killed under strange circumstances. That whole cattle-mutilation thing still hovered around, leaving questions whose answers never entirely satisfied the ranchers.

   Break-ins, vandalism—more of that over the past few years as the county grew and bored youngsters got ideas from movies, television and gangsta rap. Although, to his way of thinking, the growing size of the younger population probably meant that, percent-age-wise, there was no more crime than ever.

   There were new jobs, though. When he’d first moved here fifteen years ago, the county had been losing many of its young folks to brighter city lights. Then the lights here had grown a bit brighter when a semiconductor plant was set up outside town. Easier work than ranching. Good wages. Folks had moved in, and more kids stayed, especially now that they had a local college, too.

   Small changes with outsize impact. Nothing threatened the old way of life here yet, but it sure was odd to see kids wearing saggy, beltless, shapeless pants, as if the whole world wanted to see their underwear, instead of boot-cut jeans and ropers. Among the younger set, the cowboy hat had been completely replaced by the ball cap. Sometimes Gage grinned, because it was all familiar to him from the days before he moved here. It had just taken longer to arrive than he had, that was all.

   Velma buzzed him on the intercom. “Sheriff? There’s a man here looking for Micah.”

   Gage didn’t hesitate. “Send him back.”

   Maybe he remained overly cautious from his DEA days, but Gage was protective of his deputies, their addresses and their whereabouts. Velma’s description had spoken volumes. She hadn’t given the visitor a name, which meant he wasn’t local. Gage went instantly on guard.

   A half minute later, a tall dark man appeared in Gage’s doorway. Gage experienced an instant of recognition so fleeting it was gone before he could nail it down.

   “Come in,” he said to the stranger, rising to offer his hand.

   The man took it and shook firmly, giving Gage a chance to study him. His first guess was Native American, but the thick beard threw him off. Coppery skin tone, but that could be from the sun. Chambray shirt and jeans.

   “Gage Dalton,” he said. “Have we met before?”

   The man shook his head. “Major Ethan Parish.”

   At once Gage stilled. He studied the man even more closely, and now the instant of recognition made sense. “You look a bit like him. Related?”

   Ethan nodded.

   “Well, take a seat.”

   The two men sat facing each other across the expanse of the old wood desk with its stacks of papers.

   “Does Micah know you’re here?” Gage asked.

   “No.”

   “I see.” Gage drummed his fingers on the desk for just a moment. He recognized the look in Ethan Parish’s eyes. Micah still showed it on occasion, as did Billy Joe Yuma, the county’s rescue pilot. He had also seen the look on the faces of his fellow DEA agents when they’d been on the streets too long. Sometimes he saw it in his own mirror.

   “Look,” he said after a moment. “If Micah doesn’t know you’re here, I don’t feel I should be telling you how to find him. Maybe you should call him.”

   “This isn’t something I want to do on the phone.”

   “Why not?”

   Ethan Parish hesitated, looking past Gage as if debating how much to tell.

   “Tell you what,” Gage said after a few moments. “Tell me who you are. Something about yourself.”

   “Marine recon, special operations. One tour in Iraq, two in Afghanistan. Other things I can’t tell you about. I won’t be going back. Medical discharge.”

   “You were wounded?”

   “More than once.”

   Gage nodded. “I’m sorry.”

   Ethan Parish merely looked at him. “I’m better off than many.”

   Gage nodded again. “Still walking.”

   Ethan nodded once. “And talking. Anyway, I’ll be officially discharged within the next six months.”

   “Need a job?”

   “If I stay here.”

   Gage rubbed his chin and settled back in his chair. “How’s Micah fit in the picture?”

   Ethan’s mouth tightened.

   “Look, you know about protecting your men. I’m no different.”

   That seemed to cause a shift in the man facing him. At last Ethan relaxed a hair. “This can’t get out.”

   “Believe me, I know how to keep a secret. I was undercover DEA before I came here.”

   That did the trick. “Micah Parish doesn’t know it, but he’s my father.”

   Gage froze. “Oh, hell,” he said finally. “This could raise a real storm.”

   “That’s why I don’t want it getting out until I talk to him.”

   “I can sure understand that.” Gage paused to think again. “Okay,” he said finally. “Tell you what I’ll do. Micah’s on his day off, so I’ll drive you out to his ranch. But you better not tell his wife who you are before you get a chance to talk to him in private.”

   “That’s how I was hoping to handle it.”

   “Then we see eye-to-eye. Come on, let’s go. You can think up a cover story while we drive.”

   

   That afternoon, Connie’s world blew up. It happened the way such things do, utterly without warning, and in an instant that was otherwise utterly benign.

   On her day off, she always had plenty to do. Her mother, disabled by a severe fall several years ago, helped as much as she could, but being stuck in a wheelchair severely limited her activities. In many ways she created extra work for Connie, but it was work she didn’t mind, because she didn’t know how she would have been able to hold a job and care for Sophie properly at the same time without her mother there.

   Sophie had reached the amazing age of seven, when girls start to act like little mothers, developing a streak of independence and becoming downright bossy. So far, Sophie’s imitation of motherhood had proved more amusing than anything else, although Connie suspected that at some point they would need to have a discussion before the girl alienated all her friends by bossing them around.

   “Perfectly normal,” Connie’s mother said. “All girls do it. It’d be worse if she had a brother.”

   “I suppose.”

   Connie climbed down from the ladder where she’d been spackling a small crack in the ceiling. Some major problems had begun to brew in the old house, but she couldn’t afford to deal with them yet. “Want some coffee, Mom?”

   “I’ll never pass up a cup of coffee,” Julia answered. “You know that. You don’t even have to ask.”

   “Sophie should be home soon,” Connie remarked as she washed both her hands and the spackling knife at the sink. “She’d better hurry. It looks like we might get a storm.”

   Julia turned her wheelchair so she could look out the tall window over the sink. “So it does. I wanted to ask you something.”

   Connie grabbed a towel to dry her hands and turned, leaning back against the counter. She raised her eyebrows. “I always hate it when you say that.”

   “Why?”

   “Because it always means it’s not an ordinary question.”

   Julia laughed. “Well, you’re too old for me to send to your room, so I think you’re safe.”

   Connie laughed, too. Just at the edge of hearing, she heard a rumble of thunder. “What is it?”

   “I want to get Sophie a dog.”

   “Oh. Is that all?” Connie draped the towel on the rack by the sink.

   Julia cocked her head to one side. “I don’t know how to take that.”

   “Well, take it that I’m listening. Why do you want to get her a dog?”

   “She’s been asking for one. And Pru’s dachshund just had a litter.”

   “A little dog, huh?”

   “Well…” Julia drew the word out.

   “Well, what?”

   “Pru’s not sure who the father is. And some of the pups have pretty big feet.”

   Connie couldn’t help the laugh that escaped her. “Do you know what an image that is? A dachshund with those short, short legs and huge feet?”

   Julia laughed, too.

   “Sort of like a basset hound,” Connie remarked. “Long, low and short. It’s okay if she gets a dog, Mom. But she’s got to take care of it.”

   “I was thinking it would be a chance to use her mothering urges on something besides her friends.”

   “Every little bit helps. Just be sure you’re comfortable with the idea, because you know Sophie is going to forget at times.”

   “I’m a great reminder.”

   “Nag, Mom. The word is nag.”

   They were still laughing together when Sophie burst into the room with her best friend, Jody, out of breath and looking scared.

   “Mom! Mom! A man tried to talk to us when we were walking home! He chased us!”

   As Gage’s SUV drove up the rutted drive to Micah’s house, neither man said a word. Then a two-story house with a gabled roof came into view, a barn not far away. A woman was visible outside the house, hanging laundry. She was small and blond, looking as delicate as a flower petal.

   “That’s his wife, Faith. The school bus won’t bring their kids home for another half hour, at least. I’ll wait for you unless you tell me otherwise.”

   Ethan nodded. His face felt chiseled from stone. Gage wheeled into the large yard, waving at Faith as he did so. She waved back, one hand holding a shapeless piece of laundry.

   “There you go,” Gage said. His hands were tight on the wheel as he stopped.

   Ethan paused for a moment, then climbed out.

   He had no idea what to expect. Faith froze like a frightened deer when she saw him. Statuelike, she watched him approach. He did so slowly, not wanting to frighten her more, wondering why she was frightened at all when Gage was here.

   But then, in an instant, she dropped the laundry she held and gasped, “You look just like Micah when he was younger.”

   Ethan paused awkwardly. “We’re related.”

   “I thought so.” Then she astonished him by hurrying toward him and wrapping him in a hug. “This is wonderful,” she said. “Absolutely wonderful!”

   A moment later she stepped back, holding his arms as she looked up at him. Her smile was wide and welcoming, and then perplexity entered her eyes, followed by the wavering of her smile.

   “I’m sorry I shocked you,” Ethan said quickly.

   Faith shook her head. Biting her lower lip, she continued to search his face. “You look so much like him. You’re not just a cousin, are you?”

   She said it more like a statement than a question. Ethan hesitated, not sure whether to lie, and that hesitation apparently gave him away.

   “You’re…you’re his son, aren’t you?”

   Slowly Ethan nodded. He hadn’t expected to feel gut-punched, hadn’t expected to feel his stomach quiver nervously. He had thought very little could fill him with fear any longer. But he felt fear now, as if everything rested on this small woman’s decision.

   There was an instant, just an instant, when she seemed to gather herself; then her smile steadied again. “That’s wonderful. I’m surprised he never mentioned you.”

   “He doesn’t know.”

   She nodded, almost a rocking movement. “I see. Well, then, this will certainly be a great day for him.”

   “I wish I were sure of that.”

   A little laugh escaped her. “I am.”

   “You’re not upset?”

   She tilted her head to one side. “Micah was forty-two when I met him. I’d have to be a foolish woman indeed to think I was his first and only love.”

   Tension seeped out of Ethan, allowing him to smile at last. “Thank you.”

   “Come inside. He’s in the upper pasture checking on the sheep, but he’ll be back soon.” She turned and gestured to Gage to join them.

   “I’m just the transportation,” Gage called. “Don’t let me get in the way.”

   “You’re never in the way. But if you want to go home to Emma, we can take care of him.”

   “You’re sure?”

   “Absolutely.”

   Gage waved and drove back down the long ranch road, trailing a cloud of dust in his wake.

   Leaving the laundry, Faith took Ethan’s hand and gently urged him toward the door. “This is remarkable,” she said. “Absolutely remarkable.”

   He thought the only truly remarkable thing was that this woman, who had never seen him before, was so ready to accept him and take him in.

   Inside, she motioned him to the kitchen table. “Coffee?”

   “I’d love some.”

   She put a pot on the stove to brew, then sat facing him, her eyes drinking in every detail. “It’s strange, but I feel like it’s fifteen years ago and I’m meeting Micah for the first time.”

   “I didn’t know I looked so much like him.”

   “Except for the beard.” She nodded, her fingers twisting together. “So tell me about yourself, about your mother. Or you can wait for Micah, so you don’t have to do it twice.”

   “I…” He hesitated. Then he said frankly, “I’m not used to talking about myself much.”

   “Then let me tell you about us.” She seemed comfortable with that, and he was grateful. “We met and married about fifteen years ago. I have a daughter by a previous marriage, and together we have two daughters, twins. Micah saved my life.” Her eyes darkened with memory, but he didn’t ask, allowing her to tell her story in her own way.

   She shook herself a bit, then smiled. “You also have an uncle here. He and his family live on a ranch a few miles from here.”

   “An uncle?”

   “Micah’s brother, Gideon. They didn’t grow up together, but you’d never guess it now. You’ll like him, I’m sure. He’s a born horse whisperer, and he mainly trains and breeds horses these days. His wife is also a deputy, Sara Ironheart.”

   “Interesting family.”

   “To put it mildly.” Faith smiled. “And now we have you. I’m the only ordinary person in the lot.”

   “Ordinary?”

   She shrugged. “I’ve never done anything special. Everyone else has.”

   “I don’t consider anything I’ve done special.”

   “Really?” She didn’t look as if she quite believed him. “There’s something about you that makes me think otherwise. Something like Micah. You’ve had a hard life.”

   “Everyone has.”

   “Not like that.” She reached out unexpectedly and patted the back of his hand. “You can talk to Micah about it. He’s the most understanding man in the world.”

   

   Connie sat both girls at the table while her mother set about making some hot chocolate to soothe them. But Connie wasn’t about to be soothed.

   Jody was crying, and Connie gave her a tissue. “I’ll call your mom, Jody, then I’ll drive you home, okay?”

   The little girl nodded and sniffled.

   After calling Jody’s mother, telling her nothing but that Jody was going to be with Sophie for a bit, she joined them at the table.

   “Now tell me everything. Every single thing you remember,” Connie said gently. But she wasn’t feeling gentle at all. At that moment she felt as close to murder as she ever had, even when her ex-husband had beaten her.

   “It was a man in an old car,” Sophie said. She was scared, but not as scared as Jody, for some reason.

   “He followed us,” Jody said, hiccupping.

   “Followed you? How?”

   “He drove real slow,” Sophie said. “We kinda noticed it, so we looked.”

   Connie’s heart slammed. “And then?”

   Jody sniffled again. “He saw us looking at him, and he called out for Sophie.”

   “By name?”

   “Yeah,” Sophie said. “But I remembered what you said about strangers. So we started to run away from the car, and he yelled he just wanted to talk to me.” Her eyes seemed to fill her face. “We got really scared when he started to drive after us, so me and Jody cut across the backyards.”

   For an instant, terror struck Connie so hard she felt light-headed. Her mind raced at top speed, trying to deal with dread and speculations, all of them enough to make her nearly sick.

   Connie’s mother spoke. “Come get your hot chocolate, girls. It’s ready.”

   Connie grabbed for the phone receiver on the wall and dialed the emergency number. Velma’s familiar voice became an anchor.

   “What’s up, honey?”

   “A stranger went after my daughter and her friend. I need someone at my house right now.”

   Velma disconnected without another word. Slowly Connie hung up the phone and attempted to gather herself. When she felt composed enough, she turned back to the girls.

   “What did he look like?” she asked as the girls politely took mugs from Julia, who then began to put cookies on a plate for them.

   “Ugly,” Sophie answered. “He had a dirty beard. His clothes were old.”

   Connie’s thoughts immediately flew to the stranger she’d driven into town just yesterday. Ethan, that was his name. But his beard hadn’t been dirty. Nor had he been wearing old clothes. But who knew what he might be wearing today?

   “Did he say anything else?”

   “No,” Sophie said, returning to the table. “We ran away.”

   “Can you tell me anything about his car?”

   Jody sniffed away the last of her tears and came back to the table with her mug. Julia put the plate of cookies in front of the girls.

   “Brown,” Sophie announced. “But not dark like a crayon.”

   “Was it big or small?”

   “Not as big as a sheriff car, but bigger than our car.”

   That was quite a range. “Anything else you can remember?”

   Both girls shook their heads.

   “Okay, you enjoy your cookies and cocoa while we wait for a deputy.”

   By that point, both girls were more interested in their cookies than in what had scared them. Ah, for the resilience of the young, she thought.

   Because she was still angry and terrified. She wanted to grab her gun and go hunting for this man who had scared her daughter. She wanted to make sure he never again frightened a child.

   Which was precisely why she joined them at the table and tried to smile, tried to cover all the protective, angry feelings inside her.

   “It’s going to be okay. Another deputy is coming to help, and we’ll find him.”

   God willing.

   Gage was halfway back to the office when he got the radio call from Velma.

   “Connie’s all upset. I’m sending Sara over there.”

   “What happened?”

   “Some stranger approached her daughter.”

   “I’m on my way.”

   “Uh, boss?”

   At least Velma didn’t refer to him as the new boss. “What?”

   “Those kids are already terrified.”

   “Meaning?” He thought instantly of his scarred face, of the shiny skin where the bomb that had killed his family had burned his cheek. There had been a time when he’d thought he ought to wear a mask like the phantom in Phantom of the Opera, so he wouldn’t scare children, but surprisingly few, if any, kids were scared of him. Certainly not around here.

   “Well, I was just thinking,” Velma said, “too many cops all at once…”

   “Might make them feel safer,” Gage finished. “I’m on my way.” With that he switched on his light bar and hit the accelerator hard. If some creep was hanging around, the sooner they got him, the better.

   

   Micah got home before Ethan had finished half a cup of coffee. He walked in the door, hat in hand, and froze almost as soon as he was inside. His dark gaze flicked from his wife to Ethan, then back.

   Ethan rose to his feet and stared at the man he had been told was his father. There was an instant when he felt almost as if he were looking in a mirror, but only an instant, for almost at once he saw the differences. His face was weathered, but Micah’s was substantially more so. His own jaw was a little squarer, and he was the taller by almost an inch. Less muscular, though. Running around the Afghan mountains on very little food had made him leaner, rangier.

   But then gaze met gaze, and there was an instant of almost preternatural recognition that pinned them both to the spot.

   “Micah,” Faith said. “Micah?” Her husband looked at her. “This is Ethan Parish.”

   Micah’s gaze shot back to the younger man. “Parish?”

   “My mother was Ella Birdsong.”

   “Ella…” Micah repeated the name slowly, almost doubtfully. Then his face darkened. “She left me when I was ordered overseas on an extended op. I never knew where she went.”

   “She told me.”

   “She never said…”

   “That she was pregnant,” Ethan finished. “I know. She told me that, too. There’s no blame here.”

   After a moment, Micah nodded. Then he advanced farther into the kitchen and reached out to shake Ethan’s hand. “Good to meet you,” he said, as he might have said to any stranger.

   “Sit down, love,” Faith said. “I’ll get you some coffee. The kids will be home from school soon.”

   Micah nodded again, put his hat on a peg, then sat at the table. His gaze remained fixed on Ethan. “How’s your mother?”

   “She died three years ago.”

   “I’m sorry.”

   Ethan nodded. “I am, too. She was a good woman. I don’t know why she never told you. She just said it was for the best.”

   “I know she wasn’t happy about me being special ops.”

   “Then maybe that’s all it was.”

   Micah thanked Faith for the coffee and took a sip, still studying his son. “What have you been doing?”

   Ethan almost heard the unspoken question, Why didn’t you come sooner? But he chose to take his father’s words at face value. “Marine recon,” he said.

   “Iraq? Afghanistan?”

   “Both.” Ethan hesitated. “I just got out of Walter Reed. I’ll be discharged soon. Medical.”

   Micah’s face tightened. “I’m sorry.”

   “I’m better off than most.”

   “I can see that.”

   Faith stirred. “Why don’t I go out to meet the kids at the bus? So you two can have some time. Ethan, you’re welcome to stay with us.”

   He looked at her. “No, thank you, ma’am. I don’t think I’m ready for that.”

   “If you ever change your mind, the invitation will be open.” Then she grabbed a sweater off the peg beside Micah’s hat and slipped out through the screen door. It slapped closed behind her.

   The two men stared at one another, tied by blood, separated by a gulf of years.

   “I probably should have called first,” Ethan said finally.

   Micah shook his head. “It’s a surprise any way you want to announce it.”

   “I suppose it is.”

   “Well, hell.” Micah stood up from the table and walked once around the kitchen before going to stand at the screen door, looking out. “I knew,” he said finally.

   “Knew what?”

   “I knew you were out there.”

   “What? She told you?”

   “No.” He turned slowly and looked at Ethan. “I just had a feeling. Like a piece of me was out there somewhere. I always wondered if it would turn up.”

   Ethan turned his chair so that he could look straight at his father. He crossed his legs. “My mother said you weirded her out sometimes.”

   At that Micah chuckled. “She didn’t like the shaman in me.”

   “She didn’t like it in me, either.”

   Understanding suddenly crackled in the air between them, like lightning, a feeling almost strong enough to make hair stand on end.

   “You’re my son,” Micah said. His tone brooked no doubt.

   “I am.”

   Micah returned to the table. “Then we’ve got a lot of time to make up for.”

   

   Connie stood outside with Gage, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. Cops were cruising all over town and the surrounding countryside, looking for the stranger who had accosted the girls.

   “Bigger than your car and smaller than mine isn’t much of a description,” Gage remarked.

   “No. But a beard. I thought immediately of the guy I gave a ride to yesterday.”

   Gage faced her directly. “Who was that?”

   “I thought he was a major. He had the rank on his shirt collar. Native American, but with a beard.”

   Gage shook his head. “Not him.”

   “How do you know?” Her voice held an edge.

   “Because while Sophie and Jody were being approached by this stranger, I was driving Ethan Parish out to Micah’s place.”

   “Ethan Parish?

   Gage nodded. “Big guy, kinda lean, back from Afghanistan.”

   Reluctantly Connie nodded. “So it’s not going to be that easy.”

   “Afraid not.”

   “What do we do now?”

   “You know the drill,” Gage said quietly. “You escort Sophie to and from school. I’ll make sure you have time to do it. And if it’s not you, it’ll be me or one of the others, okay?”

   “And Jody?”

   “She doesn’t seem to have been the target, but I’ll tell her folks they need to watch her, too. And I’m going to double the in-town patrols so we can keep an eye on all the kids as they walk to and from school.”

   “Good idea. Maybe he just happened to know Sophie’s name.”

   “Maybe.” Gage looked past her, scanning the area. “If we don’t find him, all this activity will probably scare him on his way.”

   “Probably.” But Connie still couldn’t relax. “All the parents need to know.”

   “Of course. The school is already taking care of that.”

   “Good.” Connie sighed. “Gage, I’m scared to death.”

   “I don’t blame you. But this isn’t New York or Chicago, Connie. There aren’t a lot of places to hide.”

   “In town, anyway.” She suppressed a shudder. “I promised Jody’s mother I’d bring her home.”

   “I’ll do it. You just stay here with Sophie. I’ll leave Sarah here, too. The rest of us will keep searching.”

   “Thanks, Gage.”

   He surprised her with a quick hug, then gave her a straight stare. “You know this whole town is going to be watching now. Sophie will be safe.”

   “Yes. Yes.” But something in her couldn’t quite believe that. The unthinkable had happened. And it had happened to her daughter.

   She stayed outside in the gathering dusk while Gage retrieved Jody and put her in his car. Only then did she go back inside the brightly lit kitchen where her daughter, mother and Deputy Sarah Ironheart were sitting.

   She tried to smile brightly for Sophie’s sake. “I was going to grill burgers again tonight,” she said, “but I don’t feel like it anymore. How about we try ordering from that new Italian place? They deliver.”

   Sophie was over her fear now, and the idea of pizza thrilled her. So easy, sometimes, to be a child.

   Not so easy to be a mother. Connie didn’t sleep a wink that night.

   Everyone in the county knew about Sophie’s encounter by morning. Even Ethan could tell something was going on as he walked into town from the motel to get breakfast at Maude’s. He noted that he was getting a lot of suspicious looks he hadn’t received even the day before, and by the time he sat down at a table in the diner, he knew he was under surveillance.

   His skin crawled with it. He waited for Maude to come to his table, pretending not to notice, but every nerve ending in his body was wound tighter than a spring. Hyper-alert, on guard, half expecting a bomb or a gunshot.

   What he got, instead, was a menu, and a few minutes later Gage Dalton entered the restaurant. Gage stood looking around the room and announced easily, “This man is not the man who approached Sophie Halloran yesterday. Leave him alone.”

   The eyes shifted away, conversation resumed, and in seconds Ethan had heard enough to understand the basics of what had the whole town acting as if it was under attack.

   Gage joined him at the table, and Maude returned for their orders.

   “Steak and eggs, over easy,” Gage said to Maude.

   She snorted. “Like you have to tell me that.” Then she looked at Ethan.

   “Same here,” he said.

   “So what’s your name?” Maude demanded. “I don’t like to call people ‘hey, you.’”

   He rustled up a smile. “Ethan.”

   Maude nodded. “You want coffee with that?”

   “Always.”

   Another nod, then she grabbed the menu and stomped away.

   “Our Maude,” said Gage, “has great charm. It does take some getting used to.”

   “She’s harmless enough,” Ethan said.

   “Depends on your point of comparison.”

   “So what exactly happened yesterday? I was half-sure I’d get shot while I was walking into town this morning.”

   “Remember the deputy who gave you a ride the other day? Connie Halloran?”

   “Yeah.”

   “Some stranger approached her daughter in a car and called her over by name.”

   “I gathered that somebody had tried to abduct a kid, but I didn’t know it was her kid.”

   Gage shook his head. “The rumor mill is in high gear. No abduction attempt, though. At least, not overtly. The guy wanted to talk to the girl.”

   “That’s creepy enough.”

   Gage leaned forward, lowering his voice. “When Micah came in this morning, he suggested I take you on.”

   Ethan was startled. “Take me on?”

   “As a deputy. At least temporarily.”

   “But why?”

   “He seems to feel you’re fresher at dealing with threats than the rest of us.” Gage grinned. “He’s right, you know. Whatever we used to be, we’re all small-town cops now.”

   Ethan nodded slowly, turning the idea over in his head. He, too, kept his voice low. “You want me to protect the girl?”

   “Sort of.”

   Ethan waited patiently. He was good at that from years of sitting in out-of-the-way places waiting, waiting, waiting for his target. For information. For whatever.

   “The thing is, what if this guy isn’t really a stranger?”

   Ethan’s brow creased. “What do you mean?”

   “Sophie didn’t recognize the guy, but she’s only seven. Anyway, everyone has it fixed in their heads that this guy is someone from outside the county. What if he’s not? They’ll dismiss anyone they know, even if he does something suspicious.”

   “I see what you mean.”

   “Now maybe Sophie’s his target. Or maybe he just happens to like little blond girls and goes for another one. Whichever way, if Farmer Sam sees Rancher Jesse talking to a little girl, he’s not going to get suspicious. Because they’re neighbors.”

   “I read you.”

   Gage smiled. “Micah said you’d help.”

   “He did, did he?”

   Gage’s smile broadened. “I always wanted another Micah Parish on my staff.” He laughed and leaned back to let Maude pour their coffee, then put their plates in front of them. After she moved away, he leaned in again, keeping his voice well below the level of surrounding conversation. “We’ll go over to the office after breakfast. It’s time to plan.”

   “I didn’t say I’d do it.”

   Gage’s smile faded as he studied the younger man. After a bit he said, “You’ll do it. You’re not the kind to walk away.”

   

   Ethan walked back to the sheriff’s office with Gage. Throughout breakfast, only a few more words had passed between them, either, because neither man was much of a talker or because too many ears were listening.

   Ethan had come this way looking for something of himself, something that wasn’t connected to the years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whoever, whatever, he’d been before was gone. Now, about to return to civilian life, he needed new anchors. Experience had taught him to deal with events that came out of the blue, often hectic, usually unstoppable and always initially confusing. It took a lot to throw him offstride.

   But right now he felt very much offstride. He wasn’t exactly sure what he’d expected coming out here, but this sure as hell wasn’t it. He hadn’t expected events to rise around him like quicksand again.

   Protect a little girl? How could he say no?

   “Velma,” Gage said as they passed the dispatcher’s desk, “Ethan here is going to be working with us. And I don’t want anyone outside the department to know that for a while.”

   She snorted and blew smoke through her nostrils. A cigarette dangled from her left hand, ash hanging precariously. “Like that’s gonna happen.”

   “You heard me. I know you can keep a secret.”

   They were already turning into Gage’s office as Velma called after them, “It won’t be me who lets the cat out.”

   Gage half smiled. “That woman is such an icon at that desk that if she ever passes on, we’re going to have to put a statue of her there.”

   Ethan returned the half smile and settled into the chair he’d occupied only the day before. Gage rounded the desk, running his fingers through his prematurely gray hair, and sat.

   “Help me here,” he said. “We need to run surveillance. Keep an eye on Sophie in a way that doesn’t overly restrict her. Keep an eye on the other kids. Because what we don’t know here is whether she was a specific target or a target of opportunity. He could know the names of dozens of kids.”

   “Certainly possible if he’s a local.”

   “The schools will be on lockdown all day. No students will be allowed out. Parents are being advised to pick up their kids at school or at bus stops. But that still leaves after school.”

   Ethan nodded. “My bet is that if the guy hasn’t moved on, he’s not going to try anything until the heat lessens. Just walking from the motel to the diner, I could tell you’re on high alert.”

   “Are you saying we should stop?”

   “I’m saying you need to be less visible.” Ethan leaned forward. “If the guy hasn’t moved on, you need to surveil in a way that will give him the guts to make a move. Otherwise, once things have been quiet for a week or so, you’re going back to your normal routine and he’s coming out of the woodwork.”

   “I was thinking that, too.” Gage rubbed his chin. “But if we’re facing a local, then all my deputies are well-known. It won’t matter if they’re in or out of uniform.”

   Ethan nodded slowly. “In Iraq and Afghanistan, I never removed my uniform. I knew I was walking around with a target painted on me.”

   “Which means?”

   “You still have to be there. Just gradually lessen your patrols so it looks like you’re going back to normal. But make sure everyone in the department knows you’re not. That they have to leave what look like gaps, but only briefly. Sort of like fanning out but making sure you can always manage crossfire, if you follow.”

   Gage nodded. “And nobody gets in and out of town without being noted.”

   “Yes. So basically, you widen your perimeter, let it become porous, but not so porous you can’t close it up fast.”

   “Makes sense. It’ll take a little time to put it into practice.”

   “Yeah, it will,” Ethan agreed, “but you don’t want to relax your patrols too quickly, anyway. Never signal the enemy that you’re laying a trap.”

   Gage rose and poured two cups of coffee from the drip coffeemaker on a rickety side table. He passed one to Ethan.

   “I’ve got one more thing,” he said as he resumed his seat. “It involves you directly.”

   Ethan arched a brow, waiting.

   “Nobody in town knows who you are yet, especially since you registered at the hotel under the name Birdsong. So, I called Micah about this, and he agrees. He and Faith won’t say anything about you. And I want you to move in with Connie.”

   Ethan stiffened. “Hold on there.”

   Gage shook his head. “It will work. You’re an old friend of Connie’s from Denver. She decided to ask you to stay with her.”

   A million alarm bells sounded in Ethan’s head. “What good will that do? The guy isn’t going to try to steal the little girl out of her bed.”

   “No, but it will make it easier for you to keep an eye on her, and nobody would know you were working for me. So if you happen to be seen around Sophie, you have a cover story. Otherwise…”

   Otherwise pretend he was back in the mountains, on recon. Passing like a ghost through all kinds of danger. Except the danger here wasn’t directed at him.

   Things inside him that had just begun to loosen once again clenched like fists. He was painted, man. He was always painted.

   He put his coffee down. “You better make sure the lady is okay with this. Because I’m not sure I am.”

   “She will be,” Gage said confidently, his face darkening as if with memory. “Parents tend to be willing to do anything to keep their children safe.”

   Anything, Ethan agreed silently. Anything. He’d sure as hell seen enough of what that meant.

   But all too often it resulted in horror that could sear the soul.

   Connie couldn’t believe she was standing in a store getting a cell phone for her seven-year-old daughter. It seemed surreal. She’d never wanted one for herself, even after the technology arrived in the county, complete with two different carriers to choose from. Of course, she was hooked up by radio to the department, so a cell phone had struck her as just another intrusion.

   Not anymore. Now it meant safety. Safety for Sophie. Her daughter would now have an immediate means of calling her mother or calling the sheriff. As Connie scanned the various plans, she started to choose the cheapest one with a minimum of minutes until she realized the obvious: Sophie was bound to use the phone to call friends, at least until the novelty wore off. Like parents everywhere, she gave up the fight before it began and protected herself against sky-high charges by purchasing a plan with more minutes than she thought Sophie could possibly use.

   She bought a case to protect the phone, one that would loop fully around Sophie’s belt, not just clip there. Then she got a phone for herself.

   She walked out of the store with her plastic bag, feeling that somehow time had slipped its moorings. Conard City—all of Conard County—had always been a safe place for children, as safe as any place could be. She had the strangest feeling that she had switched centuries, that time had warped and carried her into a frightening new world.

   Ridiculous, of course. Her time in Denver had exposed her to all this. But Conard County had in many ways escaped the worst of current times.

   Climbing back into her cruiser, she gave herself a mental kick in the butt. How many times had she heard someone say on the TV news, “These things just don’t happen in this town”?

   They happened everywhere. She knew it then, and she knew it now. The difference, of course, was that her daughter would be the subject of the news story if things didn’t work out.

   Her radio crackled even before she pulled out of the parking place.

   “Get on back to the office, sweetie,” Velma said. “Gage needs you. Nothing bad.”

   A good thing Velma had added that, Connie thought, as she wheeled away from the curb and headed back to the office. Her heart had been caught in mid-slam. Nothing bad.

   Five minutes later she was sitting in Gage’s office with the sheriff and Ethan Parish. Ethan’s presence made her uncomfortable in some way. Not fear or anything. Just a sense of discomfort.

   “Ethan’s joining the department,” Gage said.

   Connie looked at him. “Congratulations.”

   He nodded but said nothing.

   “I figure it this way,” Gage said. “Nobody knows Ethan yet, so nobody’s gonna know he’s a deputy. So we’re going to put the story out that he’s an old friend of yours from Denver.”

   Connie blinked. “Why?”

   “Because then he can move into your house and help keep an eye on Sophie.”

   Connie’s chest tightened as if it had suddenly been grabbed and squeezed. Her vision narrowed, and the next thing she knew she was leaning forward, gripping the edge of Gage’s desk, panting for air.

   She felt, rather than saw, Gage reach her side, felt him grip her shoulders.

   “Connie. Connie?”

   It was as if she’d been holding it all back, refusing to truly face the reality of the threat to Sophie until this very instant. She’d been scared, she’d been worried, she’d lain awake, but she’d managed to maintain some distance, some control.

   In an instant, all that shattered. Reality came home with heart-stopping, mind-pounding force.

   “Connie? Do you need medical help?”

   She managed a shake of her head. Her voice came out thin, as if she couldn’t get any air into it. “Somebody tried to kidnap my daughter.”

   Gage seemed to understand. He squatted beside her, rubbing her shoulder. “Delayed reaction,” he said. “He didn’t succeed, Connie. And we’re not going to let him succeed. That’s why Ethan is going to stay with you. His skills aren’t dulled yet by living here. He’s in peak form. He’ll smell danger before it gets anywhere near Sophie.”

   She managed a nod, closed her eyes and fought for control. She wouldn’t be any good to Sophie like this. She had to stay cool. Keep her wits. Finally she began to breathe again and was able to sit up.

   The first thing she did was look at Ethan. “Will you?” she asked. “Do you mind?”

   His was a face that didn’t smile easily, she could tell, but he gave her a small one now. “Not at all. It’s been a while since I felt useful.”

   “Take the rest of the day, Connie,” Gage said, returning to his seat. “Get Ethan settled however you want, get Sophie from school, do whatever you need to so you can cope.” For an instant his gaze grew distant. “I know what it’s like.”

   He did, Connie thought. He certainly did.

   

   Together she and Ethan stopped by the motel to pick up his gear; then they drove to her house. Julia’s eyes widened when Connie walked into the kitchen with Ethan in tow.

   “What’s this?” she asked.

   “This is Ethan, Mom,” Connie answered. “An old friend. He’s going to stay with us for a while.”

   Julia’s eyes narrowed. “I can smell a fib from fifty feet.”

   Ethan surprised Connie by pulling out a chair from the kitchen table so that he and Julia were near eye level. “The truth is, ma’am, I’m here to keep an eye on Sophie. I’m a deputy.”

   “A new one.” Julia’s eyes narrowed. “Looks like you’ve seen some grief.”

   Ethan shrugged. “The point is, I’ve been hired as personal protection for your granddaughter. Good enough?”

   “Better than nothing.”

   “Mom!”

   Julia looked at her, then back at Ethan. “She hates it when I’m truthful.”

   “Well,” said Ethan, “that wasn’t exactly truthful.”

   “Why not?”

   “Because Connie is protection, too. She’s not nothing.”

   At that, Julia cracked a smile. “Okay, then. Go get settled.”

   “I have a spare bedroom where—” Connie began, but Ethan interrupted her.

   “No bedroom,” he said. “I’ll camp out in the living room. I want to be able to watch the doors.”

   “Okay.” At that point, Connie didn’t care. He could perch on the roof if he wanted to, as long as he kept Sophie safe. He tossed his backpack into a corner, out of the way.

   “Is it okay if I look around?”

   “Help yourself.” Connie dropped her plastic bag on the armchair. “I’m going to have to figure out how to use a cell phone by tomorrow morning.”

   “Why is that?”

   “I got one for Sophie.”

   He nodded. “Good idea.”

   “It’s not something I ever thought I’d do for a seven-year-old.”

   “Seems smart to me.” Then he gave another small smile. “But don’t look to me for lessons. I’ve never had a cell. I’m a radio kind of guy.”

   “I was a radio kind of girl until yesterday.”

   She walked him through the house, not that there was much to see. She’d converted the downstairs dining room into a bedroom for her mother. Upstairs, there were three small bedrooms, two with dormers. She used one of those and Sophie the other. The third room, at the back of the house, was cramped, with a low sloping ceiling, but adequate for a twin bed and dresser, if little more.

   The house’s only bathroom was downstairs, behind the kitchen. The house had all the earmarks of a place that had been built a bit at a time, the mudroom tacked on like an afterthought next to the kitchen. When the weather was bad, it was the way to enter. Otherwise Connie preferred the side door, between the kitchen and the driveway.

   By the time they finished the tour, Julia had a pot of coffee brewing and invited Ethan to join her. He seemed willing enough, so Connie sat with them. She could barely hold still, though. Her eyes kept straying to the clock, counting the minutes until she went to pick up Sophie. Counting the minutes until she could hug her daughter and assure herself that everything was all right.

   “What time do we pick her up?” Ethan asked.

   “Two-thirty.”

   “Okay. When I finish this wonderful coffee—” Julia beamed “—I’ll walk down to the school and scope things out from cover. After I get back, I think we ought to walk back down together to pick her up.”

   “Why not take the car?”

   “Because if anyone’s watching your daughter, I want to know it.”

   “All right.” She wondered how he could be so sure, then decided he’d probably developed a sixth sense for such things where he’d been. It was probably the reason he had survived.

   “All right,” she said again. “What if I take a ball and we stop at the park on the way back? Let her get some exercise.”

   He nodded. “Soccer ball?”

   “I have one, yes.”

   “Good. Bring it.” He smiled then, a real smile. “Soccer is an international language. It was a great way to break the ice in Afghanistan. All I had to do was take out my ball and start kicking it around, and pretty soon I’d have a dozen or more kids with me, everyone having a great time. Some of my best memories are of kicking a ball around in that dirt and dust.”

   Connie felt herself smiling with him. She could see the pleasure the memories gave him, and she felt relieved to finally see a softer side to him.

   But then her eyes strayed to the clock again. The minutes couldn’t possibly move any slower.

   

   Ethan and Connie left early to pick up Sophie at the school. Ethan carried the soccer ball under his arm, and they strolled along as if they had all the time in the world.

   Ethan wanted it to look exactly that way. His eyes moved restlessly, noting every detail of the streets, the cars, the houses that lined them. Connie found herself doing pretty much the same thing, seeking anything that seemed out of place.

   Ethan spoke. “It must be hard, being a single mother.”

   “Easier than being married to an abusive jerk. Safer for Sophie and me both.”

   “I’m sorry. What happened?” He paused. “I guess it’s none of my business.”

   “I don’t mind discussing it. I’ve given some courses in anger management, and I’ve used my personal experience to illustrate. My ex beat me. As in most cases, at first he was just controlling. It didn’t seem too bad. Then he started to object to my friends. Classic. Cut me off from my support network.”

   Ethan nodded.

   “But even though I was a cop, I couldn’t see what was happening to me. It’s odd, isn’t it, how you can see something happen to someone else but not see the same thing happening to you?”

   “I think that’s pretty much normal.”

   “Maybe. Anyway, he undermined my self-confidence, made me feel responsible for everything that went wrong. Then he hit me a couple of times. He always apologized and swore it would never happen again. I was too ashamed to tell anyone. Cop as abused wife. Sheesh. Talk about humiliating.”

   “So what got you out?”

   “When he knocked me down and started kicking me. I was pregnant. That’s standard, too. It’s like they resent the intrusion, the loss of control. Regardless, I had someone to think about besides myself. That time I didn’t take it.”

   “Good for you.”

   She shook her head and sighed. “It wasn’t pretty. After I managed to get to my feet, I knocked him down and got my gun. After that it was a restraining order and divorce. I never saw him again.”

   “He couldn’t stand up to the gun, huh?”

   “I don’t know. I mean, it was a dangerous time. Thank God for my buddies on the force. They got me out of the house and into a shelter, and for a long time I never went anywhere alone.” She looked over at him. “That’s the time when most women get killed. After they stand up to their abuser and decide to get out. I’ll forever be grateful to my fellow officers.”

   “That’s the way it should be. If we don’t take care of each other, who will?”

   She figured he was thinking about his own unit and a very different set of circumstances. Sometimes one’s own scars ached in response to similar scars in others. It was as if like recognized like.

   “You’re a strong woman,” he remarked.

   “Sure. That’s why I’m coming apart. Sophie needs me, and I’m coming apart.”

   He touched her arm tentatively, as if afraid of her reaction. “You have to allow those feelings,” he said. “The important thing is that you allow them when it’s safe to have them. That’s what you did in the office this morning. Sophie was safe at school, you were in a safe place, and it hit you. Good timing, actually.”

   “Yeah.” She gave a short, mirthless laugh. “There’s this level I was operating at, where I was in control and focused on doing what I needed to. Then, bam, I lost it.”

   “That’s okay. Now you’re back in control.”

   She glanced at him. “I guess you know about this stuff.”

   “Too much about it.”

   Surprising herself, she took his hand, feeling its strength, size and power. It was a toughened hand, callused and firm. She squeezed it gently. “Thanks, Ethan.”

   He didn’t pull away. “Nothing to thank me for. There have been times when I wanted to beat my head against a wall until it hurt so bad I couldn’t feel anything else. I never gave in, but I think you know what I mean.”

   “Yeah, I think I do.”

   All of a sudden she felt a whole lot better about things. She had an ally. An ally who understood. “So Micah is…your father?”

   “Yeah.”

   “I’m sorry, but I never heard about you before.”

   “He didn’t know about me.”

   “I’m so sorry.”

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