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Something woke Honor Malone from deep sleep, the scratchy scrape of it pulling her from dreams of the green hills and cool mists of her native Ireland. She lay silent for a moment, listening to the old bungalow settling and to the quiet whisper of her daughter's breath. Neither was the thing that had woken her. Something else had dragged her from peaceful sleep. She sat up, her heart pounding, her mind racing with images she'd rather forgeta dark shadow, a knife, blood.
The past, she reminded herself. That was in the past, now.
She was in a new home in a new neighborhood. There was nothing to be afraid of. No way that the ugliness that had touched her life could have followed her from St. Louis. She probed the shadows anyway, searching the room for anything out of place. Moving boxes stood against one wall waiting to be unpacked. Her nurse's uniform hung from a hook on the closed bedroom door. Outside, the wind howled, pushing through the cracks in the house's old windowpanes and leaving the air in the room chilly and damp.
Honor shoved aside the heavy quilt her mother had sent as a housewarming gift and stood shivering in her flannel pajamas. Her daughter lay in the bed across the room, and Honor went to her, wanting to assure herself that the four-year-old was okay. Lily lay on her side, sleeping deeply. Safe. Cocooned in blankets and sheets. Just as she should be.
A soft scraping sound froze Honor in place, the noise discordant against the backdrop of wind. Scrape. Tap. Scrape. Like a stick scratching against the window.
Or a knife.
Fear raced up her spine and refused to leave, no matter how many times she told herself that the sound was nothing but the branch of one of the old rosebushes butting up against the window. Her feet moved in slow motion as she walked toward the sound, her stomach hollow with terror. She wanted to climb back into bed, pull the thick comforter over her head and pretend she hadn't heard anything, but she had a family her daughter and her sister-in-lawto protect. She'd face anything to keep them safe.
Her hand shook as she eased back the curtains and peered outside, bracing herself for whatever she might see. All she saw was darkness pressing against the glass and wispy tendrils of fog that danced eerily in the yard, swirling and swaying, concealing and revealing as the wind blew them away.
Was something else moving out there?
Honor leaned close to the window, squinting as she tried to find substance in the mist.
She jumped back, her heart racing so fast she was surprised it didn't leap from her chest.
A branch. It had to be. She hadn't seen anything else at the window. She pulled back the curtains again, this time looking down. Overgrown rosebushes brushed against the house with every gust of wind, their gnarled branches tapping against the aluminum siding. That's what she'd heard. Nothing sinister. Nothing frightening. Nothing to get herself worked up about.
She sighed, dropping the curtains and crossing the room. Her shift at Lakeview Haven Assisted Living facility had ended at two, and she'd been home fifteen minutes later. Exhausted, she should have been asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, but Honor had tossed and turned until after three. Now, it was nearly six and she was awake again.
She knew she should climb back into bed and try to get back to sleep, but the dream had reminded her of things she'd rather forget. Longings and disappointments. Joy and bitter sorrow.
She eased open the bedroom door, closing it quietly before crossing the hall and hesitating in front of her sister-in-law's room. Candace was years past needing to be checked on. But knowing that didn't keep Honor from pushing open the door and peeking into the room. The golden glow of a night-light illuminated the bed where Candace lay. At eighteen, she should have been too old to need the light, but she'd never outgrown it. Despite her maturity, Candy's childhood still haunted her dreams. Honor had given up trying to broach the subject. Instead, she'd done what Candace preferred and learned to pretend that the past wasn't still alive in her sister-in-law's mind.
Honor retreated, closing the door and walking down the hall, knowing she wouldn't be getting any more sleep. The past month had been filled with traumas large and small. Honor had hoped that moving to Lakeview, Virginia, would help settle the family back into the normal rhythm of life, but leaving St. Louis had been much harder than she'd expected.
Harder on Honor.
Harder on Candy.
Harder on Lily, who had only ever known their tiny apartment in the busy city. Lily, who thought that everyone should marry a prince and live in a castle. Lily who had her father's dreams shining in her eyes.
The thought had the same bitter sting it always did, but Honor pushed it aside. She didn't have time to waste mourning the past. Her girls were her priority. Her job, her faith were what pulled them all through the difficult times. This time would be no different.
She turned on the light in the small outdated kitchen, moving quietly as she put a kettle of water on the stove and pulled a tea bag from the canister on the counter. The window above the sink looked over the backyard, and again and again her eyes were drawn to the gray predawn scene. In the city, there had always been light and noise. Here, it was almost too quiet. Too dark. She'd get used to it eventually, she supposed. Just as she'd adapted to city life after living for years in the lush Irish countryside.
She smiled a little as she remembered the childhood years she'd spent exploring the beauty of God's creation with her friends. Those memories were one of the reasons she'd moved to a small town in a rural area. The other reason was Candace's decision to attend a Christian college in Lynchburg. Honor had wanted to stay close to her sister-in-law.
She'd also wanted to escape the memories that didn't seem to want to let her go.
A cup of tea in hand, she walked into the small mudroom off the kitchen, grabbed her coat from the rack and shoved her bare feet into boots. Cold mist kissed her skin as she stepped outside. A few yards away from the back door, an old swing set stood neglected and worn, its skeletal limbs planted firmly in moist earth. Honor took a seat on a wooden swing, nursing the hot teacup in her hand, the still, quiet morning enveloping her. The silence of it, the beauty, carried her away from the anxiety that had been dogging her for weeks and muffled the wordless demands that had become almost too much for Honor to meet. Here, in the peaceful moments before the day began, she could finally hear the quiet voice of her Creator, whispering that everything would be okay.
A muted sound broke the silence. A branch snapping? Honor tensed, scanning the yard, her gaze finally caught and held by movement at the far end of the property. A line of shrubs separated her yard from the one behind it, and Honor was sure something had moved there. As she watched, a dark figure stepped into view. Tall. Broad-shouldered. Brown hair. Those were the only details she could make out.
All the details she needed to make out.
The teacup dropped from her fingers, shattering on the ground as she raced toward the safety of the house.
Grayson Sinclair called himself fifteen kinds of fool as he followed the fleeing figure across Oliver Silverton's overgrown backyard. A squatter, probably. Someone who'd learned that the ramshackle place was empty and had decided to call it home for a night or two.
It wasn't Grayson's business, of course. Oliver had made it clear that he didn't want help taking care of his property. Nor was he open to advice on how best to get the dilapidated house rented out.
After three years of living back to back with the property, Grayson had given up trying to help the old man who owned it. Still, when he'd glimpsed a light shining from a back window, he'd decided to investigate.
More to help himself than to help his neighbor.
The fact was, after two weeks of standing vigil over his brother's hospital bed, wondering if Jude was going to live or die, Grayson needed something else to focus on. A problem he could actually solve.
A brother in New York, facing months of physical therapy and an uncertain future?
That he couldn't fix.
A squatter in Oliver Silverton's house?
Grayson could take care of that problem, and quickly.
He strode to the back door, the anger he felt out of proportion to the squatter's crimes. He knew where his anger was really directedat the hit-and-run driver who'd slammed into Jude while he'd been out of his car helping a stranded motorist.
Grayson turned the doorknob to the old house, expecting it to open as it had a few months ago when he'd put a stop to a group of kids who'd decided to have a party on the premises. To his surprise, the door was locked. A shadow passed in front of the window and the light spilling from it went out.
Did the squatter really think that would convince him to leave?
Grayson slammed a fist against the door, not worried about the force he was using. Not caring. The person inside the house had better open up and explain himself. Grayson wasn't leaving until he did. "Open up. This is private property and you're trespassing."
There was no response, and Grayson pulled out his cell phone, determined to handle the problem with the same efficient ease with which he prosecuted criminals. He couldn't help his brother, but he could do this.
And he would.
The phone rang once before Grayson's friend Sheriff Jake Reed picked up. "Reed, here."
"It's Grayson. There's a trespasser in Silverton's place again."
"When'd you get back from New York?"
"Half an hour ago."
"And you're at the Silverton place now?"
"Yeah, trying to kick out the trespasser, but he's locked in and won't budge."
Jake laughed, the sound only adding to Grayson's irritation. "Look, maybe you find it funny, but I've had a rough couple weeks and I'm not in the mood to deal with a vagrant who's decided this is home. So, if you don't mind, I'd appreciate you coming over and dealing with it yourself."
"Hey, sorry, man. I know things have been rough. Tiffany and I have been praying for your brother. Most of the people in Lakeview have. How's Jude doing?"
"He'll be in the hospital for another couple of weeks. Then in a rehab facility. It'll be a while before we know if he'll ever walk again."
"Yeah. Me, too. Now, are you coming over here or not?"
"I was already on my way when you called. Seems the new renter thinks someone is trying to break in."
"Renter?" Surprised, Grayson stepped away from the door.
"Moved in last week. A nurse, her daughter and sister-in-law."
"Nope. Rumor has it, he's deceased, but I haven't actually met the woman or heard the truth from her."
"She was out in the yard and saw me coming through the shrubs that separate our property. I must have scared her half to death." Grayson's anger fled, and he glanced at the darkened window. He could picture the poor woman cowering just out of sight, a phone clutched to her ear as she prayed the police would arrive before he broke down the door. He had a vivid image in his heada woman in her forties or fifties. Widowed with a teenage daughter and an older sister-in-law who lived with them. Short. Round. Salt-and-pepper curls.
"You scared her enough that she called nine-one-one. I'll have my dispatcher tell her you're a concerned neighbor and there's nothing to worry about. See you in a few." Jake hung up, and Grayson hesitated. Should he knock again? Walk away? What was the protocol for this kind of thing?
Before he could decide, the door cracked open, an old-fashioned chain pulled tight across the space. "Grayson Sinclair?"
"It appears we're neighbors, then." Her voice held a touch of Ireland, its husky timbre reminding Grayson of cool fall evenings and warm laughter.
"It appears so. I'm sorry for frightening you. I've been out of town for a couple of weeks and hadn't heard the place had been rented out."
"And I'm sorry for calling the police on you. I get nervous when strangers chase me across the yard. Hold on." She closed the door, and Grayson could hear the chain sliding free. When she opened it again, he caught his breath in surprise.
His new neighbor was not in her forties or fifties.
Not sporting salt-and-pepper curls.
Not anything like he'd imagined her to be.
"I'm Honor Malone, Mr. Sinclair. It's good to meet you. Despite the circumstance." Her half smile pulled Grayson's attention to lips that were soft and full.
He jerked his gaze to her eyes, irritated with himself. Obviously, driving all night had left him a few brain cells short of clear thinking. "It's good to meet you, too. Jake didn't say when you'd moved in."
"A week ago. Mr. Silverton mentioned that the place had been empty for a long time. I'm not surprised you were worried about squatters."
"We have had a problem with vagrants a few times over the years. That and kids using the house as a party resort."
"Let's hope that you won't have either problem again. Come in and have a cup of coffee while we wait for the sheriff." She turned and walked through the tiny mudroom, not bothering to wait for his response.
Grayson followed, intrigued by Honor Malone despite the voice whispering in his head and reminding him that he'd washed his hands of relationships and women months ago.
He paused at the threshold of the kitchen, impressed by the changes he saw. Honor had already begun making the old bungalow into a home. Layers of grime had been scrubbed from the countertops, revealing bright blue vintage tiles. The faded wood floor had taken on a high shine that must have taken hours of labor. Cabinets that Grayson would have been willing to testify under oath were beyond salvaging, were now a bright white.
"The place looks great." He spoke out loud, and Honor turned to face him, her cheerful yellow flannel pajamas at odds with the strain he saw in her face. Despite her smile, she looked worn, her eyes deeply shadowed.
"Thank you. It's been a labor of love."