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Dominic Mason stood behind his house, staring out over expansive pastures. The night held an autumn nip that warned of coming frost even though it shouldn't happen for another month or so. Regardless, he was nearly ready for the change in seasons.
He'd already brought most of his horses in from summer pasture. Only a few still needed to be gathered up. The hay had been mown and moved into the drying sheds that would protect it from most of the winter snows and make it easy to feed his herd over the long approaching winter.
Next month he'd sell a lot of his stock to ranchers, rodeos and breeders. His announcement of his annual sale had drawn a larger than usual amount of interest. Apparently his reputation for quality was growing.
He could see the dark shapes of his horses scattered around, quiet in the moonlight, not moving much. There was still plenty of ground forage for them, as he'd mowed early enough to allow for some regrowth, but at the moment they seemed more intent on resting. Even the dogs were invisible right now, probably quietly lying among the herd they watched over.
Just as his two young sons slept in the house behind him. Seven-year-old twin boys, the light of his life, and his agony, too, since their mother had been killed.
Annoyed with the direction of his thoughts, he gave his head an angry shake, then reached up to resettle his battered Stetson.
Another winter coming. Another winter alone. At least the rest of the year he could keep himself busy enough for three men, keep so busy he couldn't do much thinking. But once the snow flew, life would narrow. The outdoor activities that kept him so busy, the kids being off school, all that would give way to intensive training in the enclosed, battered arena off behind the barn.
But not yet. A chilly autumn night was a far cry from the blows of winter. And he had the sale next month to get ready for, the horses to choose to show.
He thought he heard a car coming up his drive, but sounds were deceptive at night, especially this close to the mountains. He couldn't imagine a single reason why anyone would be coming out here so late. All the reasons for such a visit were safely indoors or already dead. Well, except for Mary's parents, and they were about as hale and hardy as any sixty-somethings he'd ever known.
He turned anyway, because the boys were sleeping in their beds and he didn't like them to be alone long. Not anymore. Not since the illusion of security had been stripped from him two years ago.
The dirt and gravel crunched beneath his feet. Moonlight reminded him he still needed to till the summer's garden, now mostly a mess of weeds and stalks of dead plants, their bounty gone for the year.
With Mary, he'd enjoyed the winters. More time for them to spend together, fewer other demands. He'd been like one happy bear, burrowing into his den, venturing out only to look after his stock, work on training or to make an occasional supply trip to town.
Those trips lingered brightly in his memory. They'd always made a good time of the shopping, treated themselves to a meal at the diner, sometimes even sprang for a movie. But the long winter nights also remained bright in his mindnights of playing games, laughing, reading, loving, just being together.
Now only desolation remained, and two little boys that he loved more than life. Two little boys he couldn't see without experiencing a pang for all they had lost, for all he had lost.
He looked around to see his foreman, Ted Walking Bear, coming his way from the bunkhouse behind the barn. "Yeah?"
"A car just drove up."
"I thought I heard one. I'll take care of it. Probably somebody's lost. Good night."
Ted touched the brim of his cowboy hat and headed back for the bunkhouse.
Quickening his pace, thinking of his boys, Dom hurried around the outside of the two-story frame house, rather than entering through the back mud porch as usual.
Sure enough, as he rounded the corner, he saw a vehicle pulled up in front. One he didn't recognize. The brilliance of the moonlight had kept him from seeing the headlights as the car approached, he guessed. They were off now, though.
Unease pricked at him a bit, but he tamped it down, telling himself it arose only because one time when strangers had driven up to his door it had been to tell him his wife was gone.
Other strangers had come since, but not at night. To buy horses. To sell him things. To try to convert him. To save his soul. The last always made him want to laugh. He figured any soul he had left had pretty much shriveled from grief and anger.
A sound drew his attention to the porch. He looked, and even though the roof cast deep shadows on the wide veranda, he could see a woman in a long, dark coat standing there.
"Can I help you?" he asked. Automatic courtesy.
"I'm Courtney Tyson. I knew your wife."
He'd had other visits from Mary's friends from the National Guard. Even so, his heart slammed a bit. When those friends wanted to visit, they called first, gave him a warning of what was coming, even gave him an out if he just couldn't bear it.
This one had come without either courtesy. "A call would have been nice." He hated the unfriendly edge to his tone, but anger had stirred in him. Showing up like this without warning didn't seem either thoughtful or friendly.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Maybe I should explain. I'm from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. No, Mary didn't do anything wrong. But I didn't want anyone to know I was coming."
"Can we talk?"
Lead settled into his stomach, sickening him. He wanted to say no, to send her on her way, forbid her any chance to reopen the most painful chapter of his life. He'd mostly made peace with it, except for an occasional errant stir of anger or grief, and he wanted to keep it that way.
But curiosity had already set its hook, and he was a neighborly man by nature. You didn't send a friend of your wife's off into a dark, cold night without at least offering coffee, hearing her out. She'd come a long way, evidently, all because she wanted to talk to him.
He hesitated a moment longer, sensing his life was about to change inalterably once again, and that he wasn't going to like it much more this time.
"Come on in," he said, hoping he didn't sound grudging. "Just be quiet. The boys are sleeping."
"Kyle and Todd?"
So she knew their names. Maybe that made him feel a smidgeon better, maybe not. "Yeah."
He rounded the porch until he reached the steps, then led the way into his house. A woman's light step sounded alien now, and made him wince a bit, reminding him of the sound of Mary's high-heeled dress boots, the ones he'd teased her about, swearing she was going to break an ankle. She'd always retorted that they made her feel feminine, which she needed after time in cammies and desert boots, or after wearing Wellingtons to muck out a stall.
He would give damn near anything to tease her like that again.
In the kitchen, he waved Courtney Tyson to a seat at the round oak table that was covered in some oilcloth and started a pot of coffee.
"I'll be right back," he said. "I want to check on the boys."
Her voice was soft, quiet, maybe filled with as much dread as he was. The sound, while it was appealing at one level, made his scalp prickle. Something bad was coming. He knew it in his gut.
Upstairs he found the boys racked out. They were seldom quiet sleepers, so he had to tuck legs and arms back onto the mattresses of the bunk bed, adjust the covers against the chill of night.
And he noticed, as always, how sweet they smelled after their bath, how they radiated warmth like little heaters. His heart squeezed as he tucked them back in, listening to their murmurs as he gently moved them.
He stood for a moment, looking at them, feeling the almost unbearable pang of a love so deep he couldn't find words for it. His sons. His gift from Mary. Her legacy.
Then, reluctantly, he headed back downstairs to deal with his unexpected visitor. Or maybe to be dealt with himself, depending.
The coffee was just finishing up, and he pulled out two mismatched mugs. "Milk? Sugar?"
"Black is fine," she answered.
After filling the mugs, he once again had to face her. Pretty enough, although she looked thin, and somewhat austere. Blond hair had been pulled severely back as if it were a nuisance she just wanted out of her way. She'd unbuttoned her coat, revealing jeans and a blue sweater that nearly matched her smoky blue eyes.
He placed the mugs on the table, one in front of her, then sat, facing her across the expanse of aging oilcloth. The pattern was bright, ripe cherries with stems on a white background. Chosen by Mary and in sad need of replacement as it had begun to crack. Somehow he couldn't let go of it.
Then he waited, because he was damned if he was going to open the can of worms himself.
After a moment, she sighed. He watched her stuff her hand into a pocket in her coat and she opened a thin badge case, laying out her ID on the table for him to see.
"Like I said, NCIS. I'm not supposed to be here, but I've got questions, I need answers and the worst you can do is tell me to go to hell. I've survived worse."
He sat back a little, studying the badge and the identification card, then looking at her. "Why don't you just get to the point?"
"Good idea." Her tone grew brisk, professional. "I knew Mary fairly well. She worked for us."
At that Dom's heart slammed. "Now, wait. She was a nurse."
"True. She was a nurse. A damn fine nurse. Part of her ostensible mission was what we call 'winning hearts and minds.' She told you about that, I'm sure."
He nodded. He'd been so proud of her for that.
"So twice a week, every week, she'd go into this Iraqi town and work with the women and their daughters on health issues. I'm not sure how much you know about sharia, which is Islamic law, but these women couldn't be tended by male doctors."
Courtney nodded. "So okay. Mary was a nurse practitioner. She could deal with most of the day-to-day stuff, and she even developed a network of female physicians she could call on for advice or to take cases she couldn't handle herself. The women grew really fond of her."
"She took a lot of pride in that."
"I know she did. And because of that, when we discovered there was a problem, she agreed to work with us."
"Work with you how?"
"We got wind that some of our guys were raping and intimidating these women into silence. We couldn't prove it. The women wouldn't talk. So we asked Mary to keep her ear to the ground."
That certainly sounded like Mary. "She'd have gotten all steamed up about that."
"To put it mildly." A faint smile lifted one corner of Courtney's mouth. "She really believed that line from that song she was always humming. You know the one." She hummed a few bars.
Indeed he did. He closed his eyes against a sudden spear of grief, then quickly opened them again. Any doubt he might have harbored that this woman knew Mary vanished. In spite of himself, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "Did she find out something?"
"I think she may have, but I don't know for certain. She called me and we agreed to meet for coffee at this little local place we both liked. I thought our meetings looked innocent enough. But just the day before "
When she trailed off, he filled in the blank. And he forced himself to say the words. "She was killed in an ambush."
"Well, I don't know if she knew anything. She never mentioned any of this to me."
"Then why" He broke off as it clicked. Icy shock poured through him, leaving him feeling almost light-headed. "You think she was murdered?"
Her mouth tightened, her gaze lowered. He read her answer in her reluctance.
The simmering rage that he almost rid himself of had begun to heat again with her arrival, and now it began to glow hotter. But initial shock kept it from becoming a conflagration. He had to be sure. "You're not saying she was killed by the enemy."
At last she lifted her gaze and looked him straight in the eye. "The area was pacified. She usually traveled in a small convoy to town, but that day there was only the truck she was in. And she was the only person killed or wounded in that ambush."
He jumped up from the table, knocking his chair over. The crash made him wince. The boys . But even thoughts of them couldn't still him now. He began pacing, his hands flexing with a need to break something. Anything. Anger rose like a force of nature, an anger he hadn't felt since the VA had initially refused to give Mary a Purple Heart because she was officially a noncombatant.
He needed to pound something, smash something. He whirled on the woman who had brought this new horror into his life. "Are you sure?" He practically hissed the words.
That word stopped him in his tracks. What the hell? His fury transferred to her, but before he could react to it, she continued speaking.
"I believe that ambush was planned. I believe Mary was killed by the people we were looking for. I believe it all the way to my soul. But when I tried to investigate, they stopped me and sent me home. I tried again while I was at Camp Lejeune and they stopped me yet again. Told me to leave desert ghosts alone, it wouldn't do any good."
"Then what are you doing here?"
She looked down again, but this time when she raised her gaze, he could see her eyes were damp. "Because I think your wife was a hero, Mr. Mason. A true hero. I believe she died trying to protect women and girls who couldn't protect themselves. You should know that. And you should know that one way or another I'm going to find out who did this to her. It's my fault she put her life on the line, and I want you to know that she hasn't been forgotten. And I'm going to make damn sure she didn't die in vain."
A minute or more passed in utter silence. Then, feeling as if every muscle in his body were lead, he crossed the kitchen, picked up his chair, and sat. What else could he do?