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At the sight of her grandparents' old farmhouse, with its wide front porch and empty rocking chairs, Becki Graw blinked back bittersweet tears. All her life she'd longed to live in Serenity's beautiful countryside, but not like this. She stopped at the roadside mailbox and grabbed the maila single letter addressed to her. No return address.
That's strange. Who would know to write to her here? She slid her thumb under the flap and pulled out the single typewritten page.
You don't belong here.
Her heart jolted at the cold, black words. Who
She crushed the note in her fist. Sarah. Becki floored the gas and veered into the driveway, then punched her sister's number on her cell phone.
Sarah answered on the first ring.
"You've sunk to new lows," Becki fumed.
"I warned you I'd go to the lawyer if you didn't agree to sell and split everything fifty-fifty. You should've listened to me."
Becki ground to a stop in front of the white two-story willed to her by Gran and Gramps. It wasn't as if they hadn't left her sister anything. She'd gotten most of the liquid assets, not to mention all the financial help when her husband was in law school. Even if Becki sold the house, Sarah probably wouldn't come out that much further ahead.
While Becki would lose the only place that had ever felt like home.
She looked at the darkened windows and empty porch and swallowed a rush of grief. "I'm talking about the note."
"What note? I didn't send any note."
"Right. Because people are lining up to scare me out of here."
To think she'd once idolized her beautiful older sister. No more. At twenty-seven, Becki could finally see Sarah for who she really wasa spoiled trophy wife as materialistic and money-grubbing as her flashy lawyer husband. "Gran and Gramps wanted this house to stay in the family, and I'm here to stay whether you like it or not." Becki punched the power button and jumped from her packed-to-the-roof car.
Inhaling the sweet scent of summer in Ontario's farm country, she shoved Sarah's threats from her mind and turned to the home she loved so dearly.
If only the carbon-monoxide detector had worked the way it was supposed to, Gran and Gramps would be bustling outside to wrap her in their arms this very moment.
Becki scrunched her eyes closed as memories flooded her mind. Swinging from the barn loft into a pile of hay. Fishing in the creek with Gramps. Collecting fragrant bouquets of bouncing bets for Gran. Her summers here had been her happiest. More than once she'd begged to be allowed to live here always.
But not like thisnot without them. She pressed her arm against the ache in her chest.
The sun dipped behind the trees with a splash of brilliant reds and purples as if Gramps himself was painting a welcome-home banner across the sky.
I can do this. I want to do this.
Let Sarah call her crazy for quitting her admin job and giving up the lease on her apartment. So what if she'd never find a husband in the boonies? Maybe she didn't want one. If Sarah's and Mom's unhappy marriage experiences were anything to go by, she was better off single.
Besides, Sarah didn't really care whether Becki found a husband or a decent job in Serenity. All she cared about was squeezing more inheritance out of their grandparents' estate.
Indignant-sounding meows drifted from the weathered hipped-roof barn behind the house.
Kittens! Memories of laughter-filled afternoons playing with each summer's new litter propelled her feet toward the barn. The light was fading fast, but from the way Mama Cat carried on, Becki would have no trouble finding them.
The meowing stopped.
She hurried past the enormous sliding door and pushed through the regular door next to it.
A flight of barn swallows swooped out a hole in the roof.
She paused while her eyes adjusted to the dim light slanting through the gaps in the weathered boards.
A yowl sounded from the back of the barn, but instead of a cat, her gaze lit on Gramps's 1913 Cadillac. Oh, wow! How could she have forgotten about Gramps's antique in here?
She drew in a deep breath. Now it was hers, along with everything else at the farm.
Sadness gripped her. Riding in the old car wouldn't be the same without Gramps at the wheel. She just wanted her grandparents back.
She picked her way around the farm implements, her gaze tracking to the car every few seconds. How she'd loved riding with Gran and Gramps, all dressed up in old-fashioned clothes, to the church's anniversary Sunday celebration.
Becki danced her fingers over the hood and marveled at how little dust coated it even after all these weeks. Gramps had always taken such pride in keeping it polished.
A soft mew whispered from the shadows.
Grateful for the distraction, Becki rounded the car. "Here, kitty."
A thunk sounded behind her. Heart pounding, she whirled on her heel. A puff of dust floated up from around a block of wood on the floor.
She peered up at the hayloft, thinking a cat must have knocked it down. The dust and smell of moldy hay scratched her lungs.
Movement flashed in her peripheral vision. Something big. Much bigger than a cat.
She ducked behind an upturned wheelbarrow and squinted into the shadows. "Hello." She took a deep breath, forced her voice louder. "Anyone there?"
A faint echo taunted her.
She strained to listen for movement, but she couldn't hear anything over the roar of blood pulsing past her ears. She edged around the wheelbarrow and scanned the other direction.
Something shuffled behind her. She spun toward the sound. "Who's there?" A figure lunged out of the shadows, swinging a hunk of wood.
She thrust up her arms.
The wood glanced off and slammed into the side of her head.
White light exploded in her vision. She dropped to her knees, tasting blood. The ground rushed toward her.
Swishing whispered past her ears as blackness swallowed her.
Becki gripped her pounding head. What happened?
She opened one eye. The sight of a strange, shadowy room jerked her fully awake. Unfamiliar smells assaulted her. Dirt. And
She froze. Now she remembered. Gramps's barn. Someone had hit her.
She lifted her head a few inches and waited for the ringing in her ears to subside. She rolled onto her back and peered up at the loft. Was that where he'd been hiding?
Out of nowhere a beam of light flashed over the hood of the car.
She swallowed a scream.
The beam jigged across the barn wall, casting ghoulish shadows.
Hide. She had to hide. Pain rocketed through her head the instant she tried to rise. Gritting her teeth, she dragged herself away from the carthe first place he'd look. Only why'd he leave, then come back?
She shrank behind an old tractor tire. The reason couldn't be good.
"Bec? You in here?" Joshua Rayne called into his neighbor's barn.
A gasp came from somewhere in the shadows. He rushed forward. "Bec?"
Josh jerked his flashlight beam toward the tentative response. Bec sat huddled behind a tractor tire, her face chalky-white.
Lowering the beam, he hurried to her. "What happened? Why are you hiding back here?"
"You scared me."
His heart kicked at the crack in her voice. "I'm sorry." He clasped her hand. Her fingers were far more delicate than those of the freckled tomboy she'd been the last time he'd found her hiding in this barn. He tugged her to her feet. "I saw the barn door open and"
She swayed and clutched her head.
"What's wrong?" He directed his flashlight beam toward her face.
Shielding her eyes, she leaned back against the tractor tire with a moan and soothed her swollen lower lip with the tip of her tongue. "Someone hit me."
"Hit you?" Apparently that car he'd seen hightail it out of the farmer's lane a minute ago hadn't been just a couple of teens looking for a place to park as he'd supposed. He scanned her head for signs of trauma. "Are you okay?"
She pushed his light away. "I will be when you get that out of my eyes."
Josh redirected his flashlight to the floor.
A four-foot length of timber lay on the ground a few feet away.
"Did you see who hit you?"
"I just saw a shadowy figure."
"Tall? Short? Fat? Skinny?"
"I don't know." Bec clutched her head again. "Your average-size shadow."
He needed to get her inside and check her over properly. Irritability could be a sign of a concussion. He quickly swept his flashlight in widening circles. "Why'd you come in here in the dark?"
"I heard cats meowing and hoped to find kittens."
Of course. Same old Becki.
She stepped past him and stroked the hood of her grandfather's old Cadillac. "Then I saw Gramps's car."
At the emotion in her voice, Josh's breath hitched. Her grandfather had had a way of making troubles seem not so bad. The hours he and Josh had spent together tinkering on the "old gal" had been a lifeline after his mother had up and left Serenity without so much as a backward glance. But he couldn't help Josh through this loss.
Josh forced his mind back to the present, to his police training. "Did you hear or see anything that could help us identify who hit you?"
She started to shake her head, then winced.
Josh resisted the urge to wrap an arm around her shoulders and instead directed his flashlight at the items a thief might have been after. Nothing appeared to be missing, but he couldn't be sure until daylight.
Misty twined herself around his legs, purring. He lifted her into his arms and scratched her chin. "I guess you're looking for your supper, huh?" He turned to Bec, remembering how much she'd adored the cats as a kid. "I've been feeding them since your grandparents." He lowered Misty to the ground and let the explanation trail off rather than dredge up her loss. He pointed his flashlight at a box beneath the car. "The kittens are under there."
Her delighted squeal tugged a grin to his lipshis first since finding her grandparents' lifeless bodies.
He tugged the box out from under the car.
Bec sat cross-legged on the floor and gathered the kittens into her arms.
Josh chuckled. She hadn't changed a bit. For all her tomboy ways, she was still a soft touch. He gave Misty fresh food and water and then looked around as best he could without leaving Bec in total darkness. If only the barn had overhead lighting, he might find some clue as to who she'd surprised. Most likely kids out for a lark. He hadn't recognized the car he'd spotted as belonging to any of their usual troublemakers. He wished he'd gotten the license plate number.
Josh let his gaze settle back on Bec. Seeing her delight in the wiggling kittens, he could almost feel the years strip away to when they were both kids and life was carefree.
She winced, her forehead creasing.
"Hey, we'd better get you inside. Take a look at that bump. You might need to see a doctor."
A frown curved her lips, but she returned the kittens to the box and pushed it back under the car, which told him more than words would how lousy she felt. When she was a kid, not even promises of chocolate cake and ice cream had been incentive enough to drag her away from the squirming fur balls.
He didn't miss the way she braced her hand on the car fender to pull herself up, either. He moved to her side and, lighting the floor ahead of them, guided her with a light touch to the small of her back. "Do you feel nauseous?"
"A little. But I haven't eaten since lunch."
Outside the barn, he steered her toward his place. "Did you lose consciousness after you were hit?"
"I'm not sure. I think, maybe. Everything went black for a second or two."
"You probably have a concussion. I can do a few tests to see if you should go to the hospital."
She walked a little taller. "I'm fine really. I just need a couple of painkillers. All the doctor's going to do is tell me to go home and take it easy."
She squinted up at him, then at the tree line that separated their properties and abruptly stopped. "Hey, where are you taking me?"
"To my house. You said you hadn't eaten, right?"
"You don't have to feed me."
"You're in no condition to cook. Besides, it'll be nice to have someone to eat with." Life had been too quiet around here since her grandparents' deaths.
"I don't want to put you out," she protested.
He nudged her forward. "It's no imposition."
She wavered a moment but soon started walking again. "Gramps told me you took over your parents' place after your dad died. Did you still tinker with Gramps on the old car?"
"Yup. Went with them on one of those organized tours they were always taking, too. Saw some cool places most tourists don't get to see."
"I wish I could've gone on one. Gramps said he'd take me when I turned thirteen, but that's when Mom left Dad, and I never got to come back for any more summers."
He steered her around his truck in the driveway. "Yeah, come to think of it, life got pretty quiet around here without you girls."
She swatted him.
He let out an oomph and clutched his gut. "Very funny."
He smiled to himself and mentally ticked off two of his concussion tests. Nothing wrong with Bec's memory or her aim.
He led her to the side of the house and pulled out his key.
"Feel like a steak?"
"You're kidding? You still prefer a burger to steak?"
He pushed open the door, flicked on the light and motioned her in ahead of him. "What a cheap date. Guys must love you."
She squirmed past him into the kitchen, then hesitated, her gaze flagging about, pausing briefly on his Home Is Where the Heart Is plaque, then stealing his way. She looked more uneasy than a suspect in custody.
But unlike with his suspects, he felt strangely sad seeing her this way. "Have a seat at the table while I light the barbecue." He returned a moment later to find her nuzzling his three-legged pooch.
She spluttered at its exuberant kisses and wiped off the slobber with the back of her hand. "What's his name?"
"I should have guessed. He moves amazingly quick for having only three legs."
Josh filled Tripod's dish, and the pooch demonstrated just how quick. "While the barbecue heats up, let's take a look at this bump of yours."
She finger combed her hair as if only just realizing how messy it was.
He resisted the urge to tease. Her honey-brown corkscrew curls had always poked out every which way and been peppered with hay or leaves or twigs, depending on where she'd last played.
Dropping her hand, she fidgeted under his perusal. "That bad, huh?"
"I didn't say anything."
She rolled her eyes. "You didn't have to."
He didn't bother to hide his grin. "Show me where you got hit."
She leaned forward and pointed to the back of her head.
He palpated the area. Her hair was incredibly soft and smelled faintly like citrus. "That's some goose egg." He reached into his catchall drawer and pulled out a penlight. "Look at me."
Her shimmering brown eyes turned to him, framed by the longest lashes he'd ever seen. Natural, too.
Her head tilted. "You planning to do something with that light?"
"Patience," he muttered at being caught staring. He flicked the penlight on and flashed it across each eye. "They look good. Equal and reactive."
"Why, thank you, Josh," she drawled, batting those long lashes. "That's the most romantic thing a man's ever said about my eyes."
"What?" He blinked, glimpsed her smirk and gave her a nudge. "You're cute, Bec." He tossed the penlight back into the drawer. "Now, stand up, arms out from your sides, and touch each hand to your nose."
She stood and obeyed his directions effortlessly.
"Okay, take a seat." He opened the cupboard next to the sink and grabbed a glass and the bottle of painkillers. He tipped two from the bottle, filled the glass with water and handed them to Bec. "Take these, and if you want, you can lie down on the sofa until supper's ready."
She planted her palms on the table and pushed to her feet. "I can't let you cook alone," she protested, then immediately clutched the side of her head.
"As stubborn as ever, I see." He scooped her into his arms and gently lowered her onto the sofa. "Rest. That's an order."