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Grace Montgomery pulled to the side of the narrow country road and stared at the rambling farmhouse in which she'd grown up. Even in the heavy, blanketlike darkness of a Mississippi summer night, with only half a moon grinning eerily overhead, she could see that her older brother kept the place in good repair.
But that was all sleight of hand, wasn't it? Things weren't really what they seemed. They never had been. That was the problem — why she'd promised herself she wouldn't come back here.
The yellow light gleaming in an upstairs bedroom winked out. Clay was going to bed, probably at the same time as he did every night. Grace couldn't understand how he could live alone out here. How he could eat, sleep and work the farm — only forty paces away from where they'd hidden their stepfather's body.
The warning chime signaling that she'd left her keys in the ignition sounded as she got out of her small BMW. She hadn't planned to venture onto the property. But now that she was here, she had to see for herself that even after so many years there was nothing to give them away.
Her cotton skirt swayed gently against her calves as she walked down the long drive. There was no wind, no sound except the cicadas and frogs, and the crunch of her sandals on gravel. If she'd forgotten anything, it was the quiet in this part of the state and how brightly the stars could shine away from the city.
She pictured herself as a young girl, sleeping on the front lawn with her younger sister, Molly, and her older stepsister, Madeline. Those were special times, when they'd talked and laughed and gazed up at the black velvet sky to find all those twinkling stars staring right back at them like a silent promise of good things to come. They'd all been so innocent then. When Madeline was around, Grace had had nothing to fear. But Madeline couldn't stick by Grace's side every minute. She hadn't even realized she should. She still didn't know what it was like for Grace back then. She'd been at a friend's house the night everything went wrong.
Despite the humidity, Grace shivered as she came upon the barn. Set off to the right, it lurked among the weeping willows and poplars. She hated everything associated with the old building. It was there she'd cleaned out the stall of the horse her stepfather wouldn't let anyone but him ride. It was there she'd gathered the eggs and fought with the mean rooster who used to fly at her in an attempt to gouge out her eyes. It was there, in the front corner of the building, that the reverend had kept a small office where he retired to write his Sunday sermons — and to delve into that locked file drawer.
The smell of moist earth and magnolias brought it all back too vividly, causing her to break out in a cold sweat. Curving her fingernails into her palms to remind herself that she was no longer a powerless girl, she immediately steered her thoughts away from the reverend's office. She'd promised herself she'd forget.
But she certainly hadn't forgotten yet. Despite her best efforts, she couldn't help wondering if that stifling room was still untouched. Except for what the reverend had kept in his file drawer, the office had been left intact, as if he might someday reappear and want to use it. Her mother had insisted they'd be foolish to change anything. She'd drilled it into all of them, except Madeline of course, that they must continue to refer to the reverend in the present tense. Folks in town were already suspicious enough.
Stillwater's residents had long memories, but eighteen years had passed since the reverend's sudden disappearance. Surely after so much time Clay could dismantle that damn office....
A deep voice came suddenly out of the dark. "Get the hell off my property or I'll shoot."
Grace whirled to see a man at least six foot four inches tall, so solidly built he could have been made of stone, standing only a few feet away. It was her brother, and he had a rifle trained on her.
For the briefest of moments, Grace wished he'd shoot.
But then she laughed. Clay was as vigilant as ever. Not that she was really surprised. He'd always been The Guardian.
"What?Ya'll don't know your own sister anymore?" she said and stepped out of the building's shadow.
"Grace?" The barrel of the hunting rifle dove toward the ground and he twitched as though tempted to gather her in a hug. Grace felt a similar response, but made no move toward him. Their relationship was too...complicated. "God, Grace. It's been thirteen years since you left. I barely recognize you. You could've gotten yourself shot," he added gruffly.
She said nothing about that brief cowardly impulse: One bullet could end it all.
"Really?" she murmured. "I would've recognized you anywhere." Maybe it was because she thought of him so often. Besides, he hadn't changed much. He still had the same thick black hair — even darker than Grace's — that swirled up off his forehead. The light, enigmatic eyes that looked so much like her own. That same determined set to his prominent jaw. He'd put on a few more pounds of muscle mass, maybe, which made her feel small at five-five and a hundred and twenty pounds. But his bulkier size was the only difference.
"I expected you to be asleep," she said.
"Saw your car pull up out front."
"Wouldn't want to let just anyone go creeping around out here."
If he heard the taunt in her voice, he didn't respond to it. Except to glance furtively toward the copse of trees that served as a marker for their stepfather's grave.
After a stilted silence, he said, "Living in Jackson must agree with you. You look good."
She'd been doing quite well in the city. Until George E. Dunagan, Attorney-at-Law, had asked her to marry him. When, for the third time, she couldn't say yes, even though they both knew she wanted to, he'd finally broken off the relationship. He'd told her he didn't want to hear from her until she'd seen a therapist and resolved the issues of her childhood.
She'd tried visiting a therapist — but counseling hadn't helped. There were too many realities she didn't want to examine. Others she wanted to share but couldn't, not with a therapist or anyone else, including George. Although George had recently relented and started calling her again, Grace's problems still stood between them.
She hoped that wouldn't be true for much longer. Either she'd overcome the past or the past would overcome her. She couldn't know how it would all end. She could only promise herself that she wouldn't return to her life in Jackson until she'd come to terms with what had happened in Stillwater.
"I keep busy," she said.
"Mom tells me you graduated first in your class at Georgetown."
Six years ago... She gave him an indifferent smile. He sounded impressed. But what she achieved never satisfied her for long. "Amazing what you can do when you apply yourself, huh?"
"How'd you get into a school like that?" She'd left town two days after graduating from Still-water High, worked as a waitress at a greasy spoon in Jackson in order to scrape by, and spent every available minute — for two years — studying for the entrance exams. When she wound up with an almost perfect score, no one seemed to care too much about her high school GPA. She managed to get into the University of Iowa, and after that she'd been accepted at Georgetown.
But she didn't see any point in discussing the details with Clay. She didn't look back on her college days, when she'd slept only three or four hours a night, with any pride or nostalgia. While everyone else juggled school and a normal social life, she'd kept to herself and tolerated nothing less than academic excellence.
She'd been trying to make up for the past, trying to prove that she was more than everyone thought. But after graduating from law school and working as an assistant district attorney for the past five years, she'd finally realized that running away wasn't the solution. She still couldn't move on with her personal life.
"I got lucky," she said simply.
He glanced at the house. "Wanna come in?" Hearing the hope in those words, she studied the deep porch where they used to sit on the steps and listen to their mother read scripture. The reverend had demanded they study the Bible for an hour each day. But it hadn't been a bad experience. Holding a glass of lemonade, Grace would feel the oppressive heat of a summer's day cool slightly as evening approached. She'd hear the lilt of her mother's voice as the boards beneath the old rocking chair creaked and the lightning bugs danced near the porch light. She'd always enjoyed it — until the reverend came home.
"No, I — I'd better be going." She started edging away. Seeing Clay, knowing he was still on guard, was enough. She couldn't face any more memories tonight.
"How long will you be in town?"
She paused when he spoke. "I don't know."
He scowled, and she thought he looked rather harsh for such a handsome man. Evidently, carrying the family's dark secret was taking its toll on him, too. "What brings you back after all this time?" he asked.
She narrowed her eyes in challenge. "Sometimes I feel like doing the right thing and telling everyone what happened here."
"How do you know it's the right thing?" he asked softly.
"Because I've spent the past five years championing the truth and making people take responsibility for their actions."
"Are you sure you always get the right guy, Grace? And that he gets the appropriate punishment?"
"We have to trust the system, Clay. Without it, our whole society falls apart."
"Who deserves to pay for what happened here?" The man who was buried in the ground. But Clay already knew that, so she didn't respond.
"Why haven't you come forward before?" he asked.
"For the same reason you're still guarding this place with that gun," she admitted.
He studied her for several seconds. "Sounds like you have a tough decision to make."
"I guess I do."
"Aren't you going to try and talk me out of it?" she asked with a bitter laugh.
"Sorry," he said. "You have to make your own choice." She hated his answer and nearly told him so. She wanted a fight, something tangible to rail against, someone to blame. Leave it to Clay to sidestep her so easily. But he changed the subject before she could say anything.
"Did you quit your job?" he asked.
"No, I'm on vacation." She hadn't missed a single day of work in five years. The state owed her two months, and she'd taken a leave of absence beyond that.
"You picked an interesting place to spend your vacation."
"You're here, aren't you?"
"I have good reason."
She'd expected him to resent her for leaving, like their mother did, but she sensed that he was glad she'd escaped. He wanted her to stay away, to go and live her life and forget about him, Stillwater, everything.
His generosity made her feel even worse — for wanting the same thing. "You could leave if you really wanted to," she pointed out, although she knew that in his mind it wasn't really true.
His mouth was a straight, resolute slash in his face. "I've made my decision."
"You're a stubborn son of a bitch," she said. "You'll probably live your whole life out here."
"Where're you staying?" he asked instead of responding.
"I rented Evonne's place."
"Then you already know about her."
Grace steeled herself against the ache in her chest.
"Molly called me when she died."
"Molly was here for the funeral."
"Molly comes here for a lot of things," she said, bristling even though there was no censure in his voice. She wanted to act the way Molly did, to come and go as she pleased, to behave as if she was just like anyone else. But she couldn't cope with all the contradictions. "Anyway, I was right in the middle of a very important trial." Which was true, but Grace hadn't made the slightest attempt to get away. Three months ago, she'd been too entrenched in the belief that she'd never come back. For anything. Except maybe her own mother's funeral — and even that was questionable.
"I know Evonne meant a great deal to you," he said.
"She was a good woman."