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Devin MacKade considered the age of twenty to be an awkward time in the life of a man. It was old enough for him to be considered responsible for actions and deeds, old enough for him to make a living or love a woman. Yet in the eyes of the law it was not quite old enough for him to be considered fully adult.
He was glad it would only take twelve months to get through it.
Being the third of four brothers, he'd already watched Jared and Rafe move beyond him into adulthood, and Shane was not far behind him. It wasn't that he was in a hurry, really. He was enjoying his time and his life, but Devin had begun, in his methodical way, to make plans for what would be.
The little town of Antietam, Maryland, would have been surprised to know that he had decided to uphold the law, rather than break it. Or bend it.
His mother had pushed him into college, true, but once he arrived, Devin had decided to enjoy it. The courses in administration of justice, criminology, sociology, fascinated him. How rules were made, why, how they were upheld. It had seemed almost from the beginning that those books, those words, those ideals, had just been waiting for him to discover them.
So, in his thoughtful way, he had decided to become a cop.
It wasn't something he wanted to share with his family just yet. His brothers would rag him, undoubtedly. Even Jared, who was already on his way to becoming a lawyer, would show no mercy. It wasn't something he minded. Devin knew he could hold his own with all three of his brothers, be it with words or fists. But for now, it was a personal agenda, and he wasn't talking.
He was aware that not everything you wanted, deep inside, worked out. There was proof of that right here in Ed's Caf�, where he and his brothers were grabbing a quick meal before heading to Duff's Tavern to shoot pool. Yes, the proof was right here, serving him the blue plate special, flushing shyly at Rafe's easy teasing.
Five foot two, barely a hundred pounds, as delicate and fragile as a rosebud. Angel hair like a curling halo around a face that was all quiet gray eyes. A nose that tipped up just the tiniest bit at the end. The prettiest mouth in the county, with its deep dip in the top lip. Like a doll's. Small hands that he knew could juggle plates and coffeepots and glasses with a studied competence.
Hands that carried a ring with a chip of a diamond barely big enough to glint on the third finger.
Her name was Cassandra Connor, and it seemed he'd loved her forever. Surely he'd known her forever, watched her grow up with a flicker of interest that had become a fullblown crush he'd considered too embarrassing to act on.
And that was the problem. By the time he decided to act, he'd been too late. Joe Dolin had already claimed her. They would be married in June, just two weeks after she graduated from high school.
And there was nothing he could do about it.
He made sure not to watch her walk away from their booth. His brothers had sharp eyes and he would never be able to tolerate being teased about something as intimate and humiliating as unrequited love.
So he looked out the window at Main Street. That, he thought, was something he could do something about. One day he would give something back to the town that had been such an intricate and important part of his life. One day he would serve and protect here. It was his destiny. He could feel it.
The way he sometimes felt, in dreams, that he had done so before -- or tried, when the town was ravaged by war, split and frayed by divided loyalties. In dreams, he could see it the way it had been, the way it was in those old Civil War photos. Stone houses and churches, horses and carriages. Sometimes he could almost hear the men gathering on corners or in the barbershop, discussing the War between the States.
Of course, he thought with cool rationality, the town, or parts of it, were haunted. The old Barlow place on the hill just outside of town, the woods, his own home, the fields he helped plow and plant every spring. There were echoes there of lives and deaths, of hopes and fears.
A man had only to listen to hear.
"Almost as good as Mom's." Shane shoveled mashed potatoes into his mouth, and the MacKade dimple flashed as he grinned. "Almost. What do you figure women do on their night out?"
"Gossip." His plate clean, Rafe leaned back and lit a cigarette. "What else?"
"Mom's entitled," Jared commented.
"Didn't say she wasn't. Old lady Metz is probably giving her an earful about us right now, though." Rafe grinned wickedly at that thought, and at the knowledge that his mother could handle even the formidable Mrs. Metz with one arm tied behind her back.
Devin looked away from his view of Main Street, back at his brother. "We do anything lately?"
They all thought about it. It wasn't that their memories were poor, it was just that they found trouble so easily, they often overlooked the results.
Anyone breezing by the big window of Ed's Caf� would have seen the four MacKades, dark-haired, green-eyed devils, handsome enough to raise any female's blood pressure, be she ten or eighty. Reckless enough to have most men bracing or backing away.
They argued awhile over who had done what most recently -- fights picked and fought, laws broken, or at least dented. It was agreed, after the argument grew heated, that Rafe had the prize, with his race against Joe Dolin's Chevy on route 34.
They hadn't been caught, but word had gotten around. Especially as Rafe had won and Joe had slunk off muttering about revenge.
"The guy's a jerk." Rafe blew out smoke. No one disagreed, but Rafe's gaze shifted to where Cassie was busy serving a booth behind them. "What does a sweet little thing like Cassie see in him?"
"If you ask me, she wants out of the house." Jared pushed his plate aside. "Her mother would be enough to send anyone looking for the first escape hatch. The woman's a fanatic."
"Maybe she loves him," Devin said quietly.
Rafe's opinion of that was one crude word. "Kid's barely seventeen," he pointed out. "She'll fall in love a dozen times."
"Not everyone has a flexible heart."
"A flexible heart." Shane whooped with laughter at the phrase. "It ain't Rafe's heart that flexible, Dev, it's his --"
"Shut up, creep," Rafe said mildly as his elbow jammed hard into Shane's ribs. "You up for a beer, Jare?"
"I'm up for it."
Rafe leered nastily. "Too bad you two have to stick with soda pop. I bet Duff has a whole case of the fizzy stuff for you kids."
That, of course, insulted Shane. As it was meant to. Hot words came first, then the jostling. From her station at the counter, Edwina Crump shouted at them to take it outside. They did, with Devin lagging behind to pay the tab.
On the other side of the window, his brothers pushed and shoved each other, more out of habit than from any real temper. Ignoring them, he smiled over at Cassie.
"Just blowing off steam," he told her, adding a tip that wouldn't embarrass her.
"The sheriff sometimes comes by about this time of night." Her voice was barely a whisper of warning. And so sweet to Devin's ears, he almost sighed.
"I'll go break it up."
He slid out of the booth. He thought his mother probably knew his feelings. It was impossible to hide anything from her. God knew, they had all tried and failed. He thought he knew what she would say to him.
That he was young yet, and there would be other girls, other women, other loves. She would mean the best by it. Devin knew that though he wasn't yet be fully an adult, he had a man's heart. And he'd already given it.
He kept that heart out of his eyes, though, because he would hate Cassie's pity. Casually he walked out of the diner to break up his brothers. He caught Shane in a headlock, elbowed Rafe in the gut, cocked a brow at Jared and suggested amiably that they go play some pool.
The town of Antietam was a pretty sight in late spring. Sheriff Devin MacKade liked to walk the uneven sidewalks and smell the freshly mowed grass, the flowers, hear the yip of dogs and shouts of children.
He liked to take in the order of it, the continuity, and the little changes. Outside the bank, a bed of pink begonias was spreading. The three cars jockeying in line at the drive-in window constituted a traffic jam.
Down a little ways, in front of the post office, there were men passing the time, taking the air. Through the barbershop window, he could see a toddler experiencing his first haircut, while his mother bit her nails and blinked damp eyes.
The banners were flying for the annual Memorial Day parade and picnic. He could see several people busily scrubbing or painting their porches in preparation for the event.
It was an event he enjoyed, even with its logistical and traffic headaches. He liked the continuity of it, the predictability. The way people would plant themselves with their folding chairs and coolers along the curb, hours before parade time, to ensure that they would have a good view of the marching bands and twirling batons.
Most of all, he liked the way the townspeople threw themselves into that weekend, how much they cared, how strong their pride.
His father had told him of the ancient man who, when he himself was a little boy, had walked creakily down Main Street wearing Confederate gray at an earlier Memorial Day. One of the last living testaments to the Civil War.
Dead now, as they all were, Devin mused as he glanced over at the memorial in the town's square. Dead, but not and never forgotten. At least not in little towns such as these, which had once known the sound of mortar and rifle fire and the terrible cries of the wounded.
Turning away, he looked down the street and sighed.
There was Mrs. Metz's Buick, parked, as usual, in the red zone. He could give her a ticket, Devin mused, and she would pay it. But when she lumbered into his office to hand over the fine, she would also treat him to a lecture. He blew out a breath, studied the door of the library. No doubt that was where she was, gossiping over the counter with Sarah Jane Poffenberger.
Devin drew together his courage and fortitude and climbed the old stone steps.
She was exactly where he'd expected her to be, leaning over the counter, a mountain of paperback novels at her dimpled elbow, deep into the latest dirt with the librarian.
Devin wondered why any woman so . . . generously sized insisted on wearing wildly patterned dresses.
"Mrs. Metz." He kept his voice low. He'd been tossed out of the library many times in his youth by Miss Sarah Jane.
"Well, hello there, Devin." Beaming a smile, Mrs. Metz turned to him. Her elbow nearly toppled the mountain of books, but Miss Sarah Jane, for all her resemblance to an understuffed scarecrow, moved fast. "And how are you on this beautiful afternoon?"
"I'm just fine. Hello, Miss Sarah Jane."
"Devin." Iron-gray hair pulled back from paper-thin white skin, starched collar buttoned firmly to her chin, Sarah Jane nodded regally. "Did you come in to return that copy of The Red Badge of Courage?"
"No, ma'am." He very nearly flushed. He'd lost the damn book twenty years before, he'd paid for it, he'd even swept the library for a month as penance for his carelessness. Now, though he was a man -- one who wore a badge and was considered responsible by most -- he was shriveled down to a boy by Sarah Jane Poffenberger's steely eyes.
"A book is a treasure," she said, as she always did. "Yes, ma'am. Ah, Mrs. Metz . . . " More to save himself now than to uphold parking laws, he shifted his gaze. "You're parked illegally. Again."
"I am?" All innocence, she fluttered at him. "Why, I don't know how that happened, Devin. I would have sworn I pulled into the right place. I just came in to check out a few books. I'd have walked, but I had to run into the city, and stopped by on my way home. Reading's one of God's gifts, isn't it, Sarah Jane?"
"It is indeed." Though her mouth remained solemn, the dark eyes in Sarah Jane's wrinkled face were laughing. Devin had to concentrate on not shuffling his feet.
"You're in the red zone, Mrs. Metz."
"Oh, dear. You didn't give me a ticket, did you?"
"Not yet," Devin muttered. "Because Mr. Metz gets all huffy when I get a ticket. And I've only been here for a minute or two, isn't that right, Sarah Jane."
"Just a minute or two," Sarah Jane confirmed, but she winked at Devin.
"If you'd move your car --"
"I'll do that. I surely will. Just as soon as I check out these books. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have my books, what with the way Mr. Metz watches the TV. You check these out for me, Sarah Jane, while Devin tells us how his family's doing."
He knew when he was outgunned. After all, he was a cop. "They're fine."
"And those sweet little babies. Imagine two of your brothers having babies within months of each other. I just have to get over to see them all."
"The babies are fine, too." He softened at the thought of them. "Growing."
"Oh, they do grow, don't they, Sarah Jane? Grow like weeds, before you can stop them. Now you've got yourself a nephew and a niece."
"Two nephews and a niece," Devin reminded her, adding Jared's wife Savannah's son, Bryan.
"Yes, indeed. Give you any ideas about starting your own brood?"
Her eyes were glittering at the thought of getting the inside story on future events. Devin stood his ground. "Being an uncle suits me." Without a qualm, he tossed his sister-in-law to the wolves. "Regan has little Nate with her at the shop today. I saw him a couple hours ago.
"She mentioned Savannah might be coming by, with Layla."
"Oh, my! Well . . ." Being able to corner both MacKade women, and their babies, was such a coup, Mrs. Metz nearly trembled at the idea. "Hurry on up there, Sarah Jane. I've got errands to run."
"Hold your horses now, I've got 'em for you right here." Sarah Jane handed over the canvas bag Mrs. Metz had brought, now pregnant with books. Moments later, when Mrs. Metz puffed her way out, Sarah Jane smiled. "You're a smart boy, Devin. Always were."
"If Regan finds out I headed her over there, she'll skin me." He grinned. "But a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Nice seeing you, Miss Sarah Jane."
"You find that copy of The Red Badge of Courage, Devin MacKade. Books aren't meant to be wasted."
He winced as he opened the door. "Yes, ma'am."
For all her bulk, Mrs. Metz moved quickly. She was already pulling out of the red zone and into the sparse traffic.
Congratulating himself on a job well done, Devin told himself he could take a quick ride down to the MacKade Inn.
Just needed to check and make sure there wasn't anything that needed his attention, he told himself as he walked up the street to his cruiser. It was his brother Rafe's place, after all. It was his duty to check on it now and again.
The fact that Cassie Dolin managed the bed-and-breakfast and lived on the third floor with her two children had nothing to do with it.
He was just doing his job.
Which was, he thought as he slipped behind the wheel of his car, a huge and ridiculous lie.
He was, however, doing what he had to do. Which was to see her. At least once a day, he simply had to see her. He just had to, no matter how much it hurt, or how careful he had to be. More careful, he reminded himself, now that she was divorced from that bastard who had beaten and abused her for years.
Joe Dolin was in prison, Devin thought with grim satisfaction as he headed out of town. And he would be there for quite some time to come.
As the sheriff, as a friend, as the man who had loved her most of his life, Devin had a duty to see that Cassie and the kids were safe and happy.
And maybe today he could make her smile, all the way to her big gray eyes.
What had been the old Barlow place -- and likely would remain that forever in the mind of the town -- sat on a hill just on the edge of Antietam. Once it had been the property of a rich man who enjoyed its height, its expensive furnishings, its enviable view. It had stood there while the bloodiest day of the Civil War raged around it. It had stood while a wounded young soldier was murdered on its polished grand staircase. There it had remained while the mistress of the house grieved herself to death. Or so the legend went.
It had stood, falling into decay, disuse, disregard. Its stones had not moved when its porches rotted, when its windows were shattered by rocks heaved by rambunctious children. It had stood, empty but for its ghosts, for decades. Until Rafe MacKade had returned and claimed it.
It was the house, Devin thought as he turned up its steep lane, that had brought Rafe and Regan together. Together, they had turned that brooding old building into something fine, something lovely.
Where there had once been weeds and thorny brambles, there was now a lush, terraced lawn, vivid with flowers and shrubs. He had helped plant them himself. The MacKades always united when it came to developing dreams -- or destroying enemies.
The windows gleamed now, framed by rich blue trim, their overflowing flower boxes filled with sunny-faced pansies. The sturdy double porches were painted that same blue, and offered guests a place to sit and look toward town.
Or, he knew, if they chose to sit around at the back, they'd have a long view of the haunted woods that bordered the inn's property, his own farm, and the land where his brother Jared, his wife, Savannah, and their children lived.
He didn't knock, but simply stepped inside. There were no cars in the drive, but for Cassie's, so he knew the overnight guests had already left, and any others had yet to arrive. He stood for a moment in the grand hall, with its polished floor, pretty rugs and haunted staircase. There were always flowers. Cassie saw to that. Pretty vases of fragrant blooms, little bowls and dishes with potpourri that he knew she made herself.
So, to him, the house always smelled like Cassie.
He wasn't sure where he would find her -- in the kitchen, in the yard, in her apartment on the third floor. He moved through the house from front to rear, knowing that if he didn't find her in the first two, he would climb the outside stairs and knock on the door of her private quarters.
It was hard to believe that less than two years before, the house had been full of dust and cobwebs, all cracked plaster and chipped molding. Now floors and walls gleamed, windows shone, wood was polished to a high sheen. Antique tables were topped with what Devin always thought of as dust collectors, but they were charming.
Rafe and Regan had done something here, built something here. Just as they were doing in the old house they'd bought for themselves outside of town.
He envied his brother that, not just the love, but the partnership of a woman, the home and family they had created together.
Shane had the farm. Technically, it belonged to all four of them, but it was Shane's, heart and soul. Rafe had Regan and their baby, the inn, and the lovely old stone-and-cedar house they were making their own. Jared had Savannah, the children, and the cabin.
And as for himself? Devin mused. Well, he had the town, he supposed. And a cot in the back room of the sheriff's office.
The kitchen was empty. Though it was as neat as a model on display, it held all the warmth kitchens were meant to. Slate blue tiles and creamy white appliances were a backdrop for little things -- fresh fruit in an old stoneware bowl, a sassy cookie jar in the shape of a smiling cat that he knew would be full of fresh, home-baked cookies, long, tapered jars that held the herbed vinegars Cassie made, a row of African violets in bloom on the wide windowsill over the sink.
And then, through the window, he saw her, taking billowing sheets from the line where they'd dried in the warm breeze.
His heart turned over in his chest. He could handle that, had handled it for too many years to count. She looked happy, was all he could think. Her lips were curved a little, her gray eyes dreamy. The breeze that fluttered the sheets teased her hair, sending the honeycomb curls dancing around her face, along her neck and throat.
Like the kitchen, she was neat, tidy, efficient without being cold. She wore a white cotton blouse tucked into navy slacks. Just lately, she'd started to add little pieces of jewelry. No rings. Her divorce had been final for a full year now, and he knew the exact day she'd taken off her wedding ring.
But she wore small gold hoops in her ears and a touch of color on her mouth. She'd stopped wearing makeup and jewelry shortly after her marriage. Devin remembered that, too.
Just as he remembered the first time he'd been called out to the house she rented with Joe, answering a complaint from the neighbors. He remembered the fear in her eyes when she'd come to the door, the marks on her face, the way her voice had hitched and trembled when she told him there wasn't any trouble, there was no trouble at all. She'd slipped and fallen, that was all.
Yes, he remembered that. And his frustration, the hideous sense of impotence that first time, and all the other times he'd had to confront her, to ask her, to quietly offer her alternatives that were just as quietly refused.
There'd been nothing he could do as sheriff to stop what happened inside that house, until the day she finally came into his office -- bruised, beaten, terrified -- to fill out a complaint.
There was little he could do now as sheriff but offer her friendship.
So he walked out the rear door, a casual smile on his face. "Hey, Cass."
Alarm came into her eyes first, darkening that lovely gray. He was used to it, though it pained him immeasurably to know that she thought of him as the sheriff first -- as authority, as the bearer of trouble -- before she thought of him as an old friend. But the smile came back more quickly than it once had, chasing the tension away from those delicate features.
Copyright © 2004 Nora Roberts